The hills above Missoula look healthy, if you're looking from down in the valley.
But up on the Mount Jumbo saddle, the trees are calling for help. Stands of ponderosa pine that appear healthy from below show signs of mountain pine beetle infestation. A few have the characteristic red needles of a dead pine.
Far more show the tell-tale polka-dot pitch tubes on their trunks - quarter-sized blobs of sap that mark where a pine has tried to flush out the tiny beetles. Those trees may still have green needles, but they're done for. Next year, they'll be red and dead, and thousands of new beetles will be looking for new trees to infest.
"You don't notice it until all of a sudden, you get your eyes dialed in," explained Amy Gannon, the chief entomologist for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. "Then you start seeing them everywhere."
With a hatchet, Gannon chipped off a chunk of bark from a still-green but dying tree. Inside, she found evidence of the crime: Stocking-shaped grooves in the wood still had black beetles and rice-size larva inside.
Gannon pointed out the "nuptial chamber" at the toe of the stocking, where monogamous pairs of beetles bored into the tree and started laying eggs along a groove as they chewed their way up the trunk. Smaller larval grooves branched off the main channel, growing in width as the larva grew in size.
Gannon and Missoula conservation lands manager Morgan Valiant were leading a team of arborists through the thickets of young trees, trying to gauge the problem they face. Using the same techniques foresters developed to evaluate a timber sale, they picked sample areas and inventoried the size of trees, species and how many were infected or dead.
"These stands make great little nurseries for the beetles," Valiant said as he pushed through a mass of pines too scrawny for Christmas trees surrounding a century-old ponderosa. "Then they start attacking trees like this."
Swaths of red, beetle-killed trees are a common sight around Helena, Anaconda and Deer Lodge. Much of that is in lodgepole pine stands, which are dense and naturally prone to beetle infestations from time to time.
They're less so around Missoula, where ponderosa pine stands are more common. But the mountain pine beetle likes those trees, too, and in places where there's been no fire or active management to clear out the little trees, the forests are choked enough to attract trouble.
Missoula has between 250 and 300 acres of forest at risk to beetle infestation. This fall, teams of arborists have been surveying those acres to learn where the trouble spots are, where the high-value scenic areas are and what the management options are.
In one spot near the North Loop trailhead of the Jumbo saddle, a logging crew have cut down hundreds of little trees to give the more mature growth a fighting chance. Other areas might be candidates for controlled burns to clear out the understory. Favorite trees near picnic areas or trailheads might get pressure-washed with insecticide for protection. Larger stands can be defended by hanging containers of a "no-vacancy" pheromone that tricks beetles into thinking the trees are already infested.
All those tactics cost money, though. Once the inventory defines the size of the problem, city officials want to develop a plan and a budget this winter and take action next spring.
The effort also brings attention to the needs of Missoula's other forest - the trees decorating and shading parks, streets and yards. City Parks and Recreation director Donna Gaukler said the beetle infestation is a reminder of how much maintenance such forests require.
"We have significantly different circumstances than a lot of other cities that have been hit hard," Gaukler said. "But I think citizens will still be surprised at what is likely to happen in the next few years, in terms of seeing dead trees, and how quickly it happens."
The extensive maple forest on the valley floor doesn't face a bug threat right now, but it is equally overgrown and unmanaged, Gaukler said. The city now has its city trees on a 42-year pruning cycle, while the industry standard is seven years.
"The pine beetle might be one of those things that happen in nature that remind us how valuable forests are," Gaukler said. "It's about the vitality of the Garden City."
The beetle plan will need to dovetail with similar efforts by the DNRC and U.S. Forest Service, which also manage forests around Missoula. Private landowners are also part of the picture. A new multi-agency Web site can direct them to programs and grants available to help protect their favorite trees at beetles.mt.gov.
"This is like fighting noxious weeds," Valiant said. "It's landscape scale. This is something we've needed to do for a while."
Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org