Beetles, Farms, and Floods

Driving down Montana highways every year to visit my grandparents, I witness lush green forests turning brown in waves. My neighborhood littered with dying trees, I am devastated seeing my town’s greenery slowly fade right before my eyes.

As a result of the Mountain Pine Beetle, nearly 70,000 acres of forest, approximately the size of Washington State, have died since 2000. Dead trees now carpet the Rocky Mountains.

Every labor day my family and I would drive up to our favorite ski resort and help move the dead trees. It became a competition between all of the kids to see who could roll the most dead logs down the slope. We watched our forests shrink in size more and more each year, causing winds at the top of the mountain to become unbearable during parts of the ski season.

Mountain Pine Beetles have spread throughout the West and reached epidemic levels in our forests

The beetles hatch from the trees they have just killed and swarm until they find a home to burrow and lay their eggs. In the past they would hatch and swarm for two weeks in July; now, that cycle is much longer. With the temperature rising the beetles fly, continually infecting trees for six months from May to October. The winters have gotten increasingly warmer causing beetles, weeds, and other invasive species to have a better chance at surviving the harsh winters. The pine beetles alone have are causing devastation throughout Montana and the Great Plains states.

Changes in the climate stand to not only affect Montana’s forests, but also it’s largest source of income: agriculture. The National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that over 65% of Montana’s land is covered with farms and ranches. Wheat is the state’s leading crop, bringing in 1/3 of the state’s agricultural income. Farming is an integral part of Montana life. Changes would drastically affect all of the Great Plains states, an area that is notorious for severe fluctuations in weather that make life dramatic and challenging for the people, animals, and plants that inhabit the region.

Growing up in Montana I remember pilling on the Under Armour, ski coats, and Ugg boots, just to make it to school in -40 degree weather. When it got that cold you had to be careful walking to your seat on the school bus, because the aisle was often covered with a layer of ice. A few weeks later it could be up to 80 degrees, and in the summer it often reached above 100, pushing people to the outskirts of town to cool off in creeks and the Missouri River. 

Parts of that very river, Montana’s longest, flooded this year due to record rainfall and snow melt, causing major damage to riverfront properties in my hometown, and leaving much of the Crow Reservation underwater.

Increases in winter and spring precipitation throughout the Northern Plains will increase the water levels through soil moisture which will help agriculture in the early growing season, and rising temperatures will lengthen the growing season making it so that some places will be able to harvest a second annual crop. Yet, warming temperatures can create other difficulties; The National Climate Assessment predicts that the changing national climate will create more frequent and intense droughts, downpours, heat waves, and severe storms adding stress and cost to the region.

Climate change poses many threats to my home, and the Great Plains states. A beetle outbreak , rising river levels, uncertainty about the future of agriculture, and the always looming chance of a severe weather storm are just a some of the worries I think about as we move into winter. How much longer can my state thrive, and what will it take for Montanans to realize the threat and make a change?

Header photo courtesy of the Beacon Reader

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