Spatiotemporal patterns of mountain pine beetle activity in the southern Rocky Mountains


  • Corresponding Editor: J. Franklin.


The current mountain pine beetle (MPB; Dendroctonus ponderosae) outbreak in the southern Rocky Mountains has impacted 750 000 ha of forest. Weather and habitat heterogeneity influence forest insect population dynamics at multiple spatial and temporal scales. Comparison of forest insect population dynamics in two principal host species may elucidate the relative contribution of weather and landscape factors in initiating and driving extensive outbreaks. To investigate potential drivers of the current MPB outbreak, we compared broadscale spatiotemporal patterns of MPB activity in lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) from 1996 to 2010 in Colorado and southern Wyoming with regional weather fluctuations, and then tracked the annual meso-scale progression of the epidemic in lodgepole pine with respect to weather, topographic, previous MPB activity, and forest stand attributes. MPB activity in lodgepole pine compared to ponderosa pine showed higher magnitude and extent of spatial synchrony. Warm temperatures and low annual precipitation favorable to beetle populations showed high regional synchrony across areas of both pine species, suggesting that habitat interacts with weather in synchronizing MPB populations. Cluster analysis of time series patterns identified multiple, disjunct locations of incipient MPB activity (epicenters) in lodgepole pine, which overlapped an earlier 1980s MPB outbreak, and suggests a regional trigger (drought) across this homogenous forest type. Negative departures from mean annual precipitation played a key role in subsequent spread of MPB outbreak. Development of the outbreak was also associated with lower elevations, greater dominance by lodgepole pine, stands of larger tree size, and stands with higher percentage canopy cover. After epidemic levels of MPB activity were attained, MPB activity was less strongly associated with stand and weather variables. These results emphasize the importance of considering differences in patterns of MPB dynamics for different host pine species even under similar regional-scale weather variation and the nonstationarity of outbreak dynamics over time.