An official report says pine beetles have killed more than 400,000 acres of the Black Hills National Forest over the last decade. But new mapping techniques could end up cutting that number in half.
You don't have to be an expert to see the impact of the Mountain Pine Beetle on the Black Hills.
"There's a lot of dead trees up there, and there's a lot of places that are heavily impacted," U.S. Forest Service entomologist Kurt Allen said.
"For 2011, we picked up 31,000 acres of new bug kill," Neiman Timber Co. forester Josh Van Vlack said.
Since 2009, officials have been mapping the areas of the forest to keep track of the spreading infestation.
"They fly in an airplane in a grid pattern over the Black Hills and they'd have a technician either with a paper map or a computerized map in the back seat of the airplane trying to draw on the map what they were seeing for bug kill," Van Vlack said.
But high-resolution aerial photography and new digital mapping techniques are giving officials a more precise look at the problem.
"You're able to be a lot more detailed and get a lot less error because you're not lumping as big of groups of beetle kill together," Van Vlack said.
Van Vlack estimates that the actual area of bug kill is closer to 200,000 acres, well short of the 416,000 acres indicated in the latest report.
"It's not that the impact is shrinking. It's not that it's not a serious problem. It's that we're getting a lot better data," Van Vlack said.
On top of giving officials a more accurate look at the pine beetle infestation problem in the Black Hills, this new technology could help better direct resources in the fight against the bugs.
"It really helps us identify the emerging areas where we have not seen a lot of beetle activity in the past, which can be really good indicators of places we can go and still make a pretty good difference," Allen said.
Officials are still working on a final number of acres impacted by the beetles. They expect to be finished in the next month.