Assessing Forest Vulnerability and the Potential Distribution of Pine Beetles Under Current and Future Climate Scenarios in the Interior West of the US

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Forest Ecology and Management

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The aim of our study was to estimate forest vulnerability and potential distribution of three bark beetles (Curculionidae: Scolytinae) under current and projected climate conditions for 2020 and 2050. Our study focused on the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae), western pine beetle (Dendroctonus brevicomis), and pine engraver (Ipspini). This study was conducted across eight states in the Interior West of the US covering approximately 2.2 million km2 and encompassing about 95% of the Rocky Mountains in the contiguous US. Our analyses relied on aerial surveys of bark beetle outbreaks that occurred between 1991 and 2008. Occurrence points for each species were generated within polygons created from the aerial surveys. Current and projected climate scenarios were acquired from the WorldClim database and represented by 19 bioclimatic variables. We used Maxent modeling technique fit with occurrence points and current climate data to model potential beetle distributions and forest vulnerability. Three available climate models, each having two emission scenarios, were modeled independently and results averaged to produce two predictions for 2020 and two predictions for 2050 for each analysis. Environmental parameters defined by current climate models were then used to predict conditions under future climate scenarios, and changes in different species’ ranges were calculated. Our results suggested that the potential distribution for bark beetles under current climate conditions is extensive, which coincides with infestation trends observed in the last decade. Our results predicted that suitable habitats for the mountain pine beetle and pine engraver beetle will stabilize or decrease under future climate conditions, while habitat for the western pine beetle will continue to increase over time. The greatest increase in habitat area was for the western pine beetle, where one climate model predicted a 27% increase by 2050. In contrast, the predicted habitat of the mountain pine beetle from another climate model suggested a decrease in habitat areas as great as 46% by 2050. Generally, 2020 and 2050 models that tested the three climate scenarios independently had similar trends, though one climate scenario for the western pine beetle produced contrasting results. Ranges for all three species of bark beetles shifted considerably geographically suggesting that some host species may become more vulnerable to beetle attack in the future, while others may have a reduced risk over time.