Salish and Kootenai begin Wild Horse Island thinning project 5-6-07

WILD HORSE ISLAND, Mont. (AP) - Crews with the Confederated Salish
and Kootenai Tribes have started thinning trees on Wild Horse Island
in an effort to keep the Western bark beetle and, as a side benefit,
wildfires at bay.

Decades of fire suppression have turned the forests on Flathead
Lake's largest island into thick stands of pine trees fighting for
moisture and nutrients. The trees are also a huge wildfire threat and
are encroaching on native grasslands that make up roughly half of the
2,164-acre island in Big Arm Bay.

“All the years of fire suppression, plus the drought we've had going
on, has reduced the vitality and vigor of the trees,” said Jerry
Sawyer, who manages the seven state parks around Flathead Lake.

But it's the threat of the Western bark beetle - a tiny insect that
burrows into trees and kills them - that drew $90,000 in federal
grant money to promote healthy forests on the island.

“People will understandably look at this project and talk fire,”
Sawyer said. “But we're talking bugs. It's not about fire. That's
just a secondary benefit.”

Thicker forests, like those on Wild Horse Island, make for weaker
trees that are increasingly susceptible to attacks by beetles.

“The way it was explained to me, is that it's like the tree sends
out a signal that says 'Hey, I'm sick, I'm stressed,' and that's what
the beetle is attracted to,” said program manager Ernie Nace of the
Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Healthy trees, officials said, can often withstand an attack because
they produce enough resin to literally eject the adult beetles
through what's known as a “pitch tub.”

“It's like a predator picking out the weakest in a herd to go
after,” Sawyer said.

Tribal crews are spending about 10 hours a day cutting trees and
stacking slash piles on the southeast corner of the island this
spring. They plan to return to their firefighting duties this summer,
and come back to the thinning project in the fall.

The federal grant will pay for about 100 to 150 acres of forest thinning.

It is the first time a project of this scope has been undertaken on
the island since it was made a state park in 1993.

“We'll go until the money runs out,” Sawyer said. “It's costing
about $700 to $800 an acre right now.”

He would like to see similar healthy forest efforts undertaken in
more mature forests on the island, but said that would likely be more

“You can't do anything on this island without it being
controversial,” Sawyer said. “It's a special place to a lot of
people, and there are a lot of opinions out there.”