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Sandy resident raises alarm about invasive beetles

May 02, 2022 08:09PM ● By Heather Lawrence

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

Chris Seibert is a self-described “tree hugger” who lives in Sandy near Flat Iron Mesa Park. Last September, he was alarmed by what he saw in his neighbor’s blue spruce tree—a distressed area in the top canopy.  

“I had been out of town for a while, and when I saw the tree again it looked like maybe lightning had struck it while I’d been gone. I called a tree specialist I’d used in the past to come check it out,” Seibert said.

Seibert’s tree specialist was Scott Taylor, owner of Wasatch Ecocare. Taylor, a certified arborist, knew immediately what he was seeing.

“I diagnosed the cause of the damage as an Ips beetle. It’s an invasive insect that attacks conifers. That includes blue spruce, cedars and other fir trees. It’s the same insect that’s killing a lot of fir trees in the Uinta Mountains. They cause a lot of damage,” Taylor said.

The pest, also known as an engraving beetle, is so small that it’s hard to spot. Taylor treats 400 to 500 trees per year with the problem, and has only seen the beetle once: when he was on the University of Utah campus and they saved a beetle in a jar.  

“This is a black and white issue and as simple as this: if you have any of these types of trees, get them treated,” Taylor said.

Some signs to look for are localized dead branches in the upper part of the canopy, branches with a brownish or purplish look to them, and a look similar to drought stress.

Seibert’s neighbor allowed him to treat her tree, and they both hoped it would be enough to save it. Unfortunately, the damage progressed over the last six months. Taylor believes it’s past saving and should come down.

“Homeowners often don’t see the insect, just its effects. It lays its larva inside the tree. While the larva grows, they feed on and chew the tissue in the tree,” Taylor said.

The larva attacks the vascular system of the tree. The delivery of water and nutrients is cut off, and the health of the tree compromised. That’s why Seibert saw dead areas at the top of the tree.

Once the beetle gets in and starts to chew, there’s a window of 12 to 18 months where treatments will help.  

 “If you have any fir trees on your property, you should get them treated. Preventative measures are your best course of action.

“If you start to notice dead areas, damage has already been done. If there’s more than 20% damage, it’s too late. The tree usually can’t be saved,” Taylor said.

Looking back, Seibert realizes he saw warning signs but didn’t know they were there.

“A friend of mine asked me about some pines nearby that looked sick. I hadn’t seen them yet, so I didn’t think about it. And in the spring and early summer I saw all these little black beetles I’d never seen before. I didn’t think they were doing any harm, so I didn’t do anything.

“If I would have asked Scott to come out and look at them, he could have told me right off the bat what they were, and maybe we could have stopped them from spreading,” Seibert said.  

Now Seibert is thinking not just about his trees, but the city at large. He hopes the warning can spread faster than the beetles do.

“The thought of losing this large tree is so sad for us. We want to stop the damage from spreading. But the beetles do migrate. I’m near Highland Drive and Newcastle and then it’s just a short trip up to the Albion Basin,” Seibert said.

Now that the beetle is on his mind, Seibert is noticing damaged trees in other areas. In addition to looking bad, they’re a fire hazard. They’re also more likely to blow down during a storm and damage property. 

If you’re concerned about the trees on your property, you can call the Cottonwood Heights branch of the U.S. Forest Service at 801-733-2660 for advice. You can also hire Taylor’s company Wasatch Ecocare at 801-870-0164 or another private company to treat your trees.

“The trees in my neighborhood, in Flat Iron Mesa Park, in all of Sandy are just as important to me as those in my yard,” Seibert said. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes—make up a flyer and go door to door, go to a Sandy City Council meeting. I just want people to know so we can save our trees.”