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Bark beetle responses to hurricane-damaged pine stands

Authored by:
Seth Spinner and Elizabeth McCarty

Hurricanes can negatively affect southern pine forests. The strong winds and flooding associated with these storms can damage tree branches, stems, roots, and foliage.

A recent example of a severe hurricane that impacted southern forests is Hurricane Michael. Hurricane Michael was a Category 5 hurricane at landfall and had maximum sustained wind speeds of 161 miles per hour. This storm was the fourth strongest hurricane to strike the US since 1900. In Florida and Georgia alone, an estimated 5 million acres of forest were damaged by the storm, resulting in roughly $2 billion in timber losses. 

Bark beetles are common tree-feeding insects in southeastern forests. These insects feed on the inner bark of trees and may injure or even kill their host trees. Normally, they exist in small populations and do not cause widespread damage. However, events that stress trees, like hurricanes, can cause bark beetle populations to explode into large outbreaks. Bark beetle outbreaks can kill vast swaths of forests and cause substantial economic damages to the timber industry. These outbreaks can worsen the initial damage from the hurricane and increase the costs of forest recovery and restoration. In the wake of Hurricane Michael, many forest owners feared that the forest damage caused by the storm would lead to an outbreak of bark beetles. 

Salvage logging is a management practice where trees are removed from damaged forests to recover economic value that would otherwise be lost. However, salvage logging has the additional benefit of removing important bark beetle resources, such as stressed trees, before beetle populations can reach outbreak levels. This practice can allow foresters to recover some value from the damaged forests, while minimizing the risk of bark beetle outbreaks. However, salvage logging immediately after a hurricane is difficult due to a lack of timber storage space, transportation, and mill availability. Additionally, bark beetle populations may grow more rapidly in different stands depending on the level of hurricane damage inflicted upon the stand. These factors force landowners to make tough decisions about the timing and prioritization of salvage logging. A study is underway at the University of Georgia to assess bark beetle populations in pine stands with different levels of hurricane damage.  

Understanding how bark beetle populations respond to different severities of hurricane damage will help landowners know how to time salvage logging. This will help minimize economic losses and aid recovery efforts following destructive hurricanes.

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