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DENVER ― Two different species of tiny beetles have destroyed more than 5 million acres of Colorado forests, according to a new report. 

The mountain pine beetle, a native insect that burrows into and kills primarily lodgepole, ponderosa, Scotch and limber pines, has damaged about 3.4 million acres, the Colorado State Forest Service said in its annual report released Wednesday. The spruce beetle is responsible for taking out another 1.7 million acres. 

The insects, which are each barely half a centimeter long, thrive on weakened trees ― meaning the dense, mature, drought-plagued forests of Colorado are a perfect target for them. It’s likely the threat they pose will only increase: Climate models predict that Colorado, which has already warmed 2 degrees in the last 30 years, will warm between 2.5 and 6.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050.

The pine beetle epidemic began in 1996 and peaked in 2008, slowly tapering off as the beetles ran out of mature pine trees to infect.

Overall, Colorado’s forests have seen a 30 percent increase in dead trees in the last seven years, for a total of around 834 million trees. That’s about 1 in every 14 trees in the state, notes Colorado State University. The CSFS is an agency affiliated with the university’s Warner College of Natural Resources. 

When so many trees die and large wildfires follow, our forests quickly turn from a carbon sink into a carbon source.
Mike Lester, Colorado State Forest Service director

Those dead trees will present a number of problems moving forward, and come with an increased risk of massive forest fires.

“When so many trees die and large wildfires follow, our forests quickly turn from a carbon sink into a carbon source,” Mike Lester, state forester and director of the CSFS, said in a release. “Beyond the implications for our atmosphere, forests in poor health have implications for our water supplies, public safety, wildlife and recreation opportunities.”

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