Dieback in North Idaho’s Fir Trees Explained
Rampant dieback is evident in area trees, but why?
This year, many of us noticed conifer dieback —especially affecting fir trees—on our properties and in our surrounding forests. The flaring out (or reddening) of so many trees is alarming to those of us familiar with bark beetle infestations elsewhere, including those decimating entire hillsides in Montana and Colorado. Are our tree stands doomed, too?
The thing is, bark beetles aren’t to blame for what we’re experiencing here; they’re just finishing off a job begun by other factors. The fir dieback we are now seeing actually has its roots in a century’s worth of logging, fire suppression, and the introduction of pathogens like white pine blister rust. This all contributes to more grand fir, Douglas fir, and subalpine fir than North Idaho has traditionally supported.
Next, the hotter, drier summers of recent years have stressed out our trees, leaving them more susceptible to diseases and pests. Thus, pathogens that healthy trees can easily fend off are now flourishing amidst weakened “immune systems.”
One such problem is the myriad native fungi that lead to root rot. Doug fir, grand fir, and subalpine fir are the species most susceptible to root diseases, and these diseases alone—even without the beetles—are leading to massive dieback.
Since the fungi responsible for root rot live in the soil and remain onsite through generations of trees, this problem isn’t going away anytime soon. However, even in the face of drought, there are things a landowner can do to diminish the threat of dieback. The first step is to thin the forest so trees aren’t competing for water and nutrients. Twelve to fifteen feet between saplings (more for larger trees) is a good rule of thumb. The second step is to ensure forest diversity, including a majority of trees tolerant of root diseases. These include (in descending order): ponderosa, Western larch, Western red cedar, lodgepole pine, Western white pine, Western hemlock, and Engelmann spruce.
Fir trees sometimes struggle and survive at the brink of dieback brought on by drought and root diseases, but opportunistic beetles exist to finish off the job. In North Idaho, we have over 100 species of bark beetle, each specializing in different conifers and sometimes even different parts of specific conifers. These beetles are a natural part of our forest, but they are flourishing right now due to the aforementioned factors of drought, overcrowding, fir population imbalances, and root rot.
If you notice fir dieback (or other struggling trees) on your property, give us a call. We can provide an assessment of your trees and forest and how best to tackle the domino effect that runs from drought to dying trees.
For more information on area tree diseases, check out “A Field Guide to Diseases & Insect Pests of Northern & Central Rocky Mountain Conifers.” To learn more about root diseases in particular, visit “Root Diseases in Coniferous Forests of the Inland West.”