Rawlins Daily Times, Nicholas DeMarino, Associated Press
Joslin Heyward works with a vole rodent in this Sept. 8, 2011 photo in Rawlins, Wyo. Heyward's thesis project at the University of Wyoming, which recently finished its second and final season in the field on the Snowy Range, examined how birds and small mammals have reacted to that.

RAWLINS, Wyo. — The gravel road grumbled awake from September slumber as Joslin Heyward braked for a squirrel in the Snowy Range.

Ignoring her small act of grace, Heyward kept discussing the premise of her University of Wyoming graduate thesis.

"My sites are from 9,000 to 10,000 feet (in elevation). I'm looking at refugia areas in dead lodgepole pine," she said. "It used to be that the high-elevation areas were too cold for the beetle, that the beetle wouldn't survive the winter, but now it is."

Common and scientific names entangled as Heyward lapsed into academic-ese.

"An example would help," she said, and soon pulled into a pond-adjacent turnout. "It looks like there's plenty of dead lodgepole here."

A thin line of rusted, barren trees circled shore. Beyond that was another row, and another, and another, forming a dizzying timber maze without end.

Heyward chose a tree and pointed out a pea-sized hole and what appeared to be a yellow growth.

"Sometimes the pitch tubes fall off — this one was probably infested a couple of years ago - but you can still see the holes," she said. "The beetle bores through the bark and introduces blue stain fungus, which facilitates a much quicker death. And in defense, the tree actually produces chemicals to fight the beetle and tries to pitch out the beetles with sap."

The tree is a casualty of a war the U.S. Forest Service says is already lost — a war against the mountain pine beetle epidemic.

The epidemic's cause, though, isn't so simple.

"It was really a perfect storm," said Steve Best, district forest ranger for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest's Snowy Range and Sierra Madre. "I've heard from several scientists that the drought years are a big part of it, but I've also heard the beetle population got moving south, in Colorado, and worked its way up."

The blue stain fungus is part of it, too, Best said.

Same goes for decades of fire suppression.

"Some of the lodgepole pines are 100 to 130 years old, grandpa age," he said.

The mountain pine beetle has been around a long time, but, until a decade ago, it wasn't as prolific in the Snowy Range.

And it's created safety concerns.

"This is something that occurs naturally, but it's more widespread and scattered out now across contiguous areas," Best said. "The potential, particularly for fire, is catastrophic now."

How wildlife will be impacted by the habitat loss is more difficult to discern.

"The U.S. Forest Service is basically in charge of the vegetation and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department does the wildlife management," Best said. "We're trying to coordinate with everyone we can to figure this out . but right now everything else is taking a back seat to the immediate safety concerns."

Mountain pine beetles have been around a long time, but, until a decade ago, weren't able to weather Snowy Range winters or infest higher elevations.

Climate change is another culprit in the lineup, and, while largely accepted by science, is still politically leprous.

Regardless, lodgepole pines are dead or dying.

Heyward's project, which finished its second and final season in the field on the Snowy Range this year, examines how birds and small mammals have reacted to that.

"Basically, I'm looking at how the loss of mature lodgepole pines, due to the mountain pine beetle epidemic, impacts those taxonomic groups," Heyward said, "and what refugia might best serve those communities during the interim of lodgepole death and regeneration."

There are numerous project specifics, but the basic goal is to see which birds and small mammals are using two related habits - namely, areas with Engelmann Spruce and Alpine Fir areas and areas where lodgepole pines were clear-cut from 1980-90.

Heyward is part of the University of Wyoming's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, although she's technically in the Zoology and Physiology Department. One of the larger federal agencies owns the result of the study, which Heyward hopes can help forest management decisions.

"I'm not sure the results of this go far enough to suggest changes in management, but hopefully this helps the understanding of what's happened" she said. "There are a lot of people looking at the mountain pine beetle epidemic, and I'm just finding out a little piece of the puzzle."

Nathan Alexander — a tall, undergraduate field technician grinning beneath a low-set hat — stood in the greenery north of the Savage Run Wilderness area in southeast Carbon County.

"This site is fairly vole heavy," he said. "There weren't any here two days ago, there were six here yesterday, and today we had nine."

After releasing one of the rodents, which looked like pudgy mice, and replacing the trap, he headed back to the makeshift staging area.

Heyward coaxed another vole from the next cylindrical metal trap into a heavy-duty freezer bag as another field technician, Holland Youngman, waived a gadget over it.

They scanned every small mammal, looking for an electronic tag - "It's kind of like scanning groceries," Heyward said - and recorded the species, size, sex and maturity of new captures before injecting each one with its own marker.

The preliminary results of Heyward's study suggest different animals are thriving in the different habitats.

"It looks like the spruce-fir habitat in the Snowies is supporting more of the specialist species," Heyward said, "and the young lodgepole pines in the clear cut areas are supporting more generalist species."

It's an oversimplification, but the spruce and fir trees facilitate more groundcover and diverse habitats, while the clear-cut sites are a haven for species that prefer a more open canopy.

This information could have implications for larger mammals and raptors.

"A lot of these species, but not all of them, are connected, and it could be that where there's a particular species of songbird, for instance, there's another species that preys on it," Heyward said. "I'm not sure if there's anything you could say about elk or deer, though."

Best said he's happy to have more research like Heyward's.

"It's kind of my job to take all the available information and decide on the best management decisions," he said. "It may be that to mitigate impacts on habitat for a species of concern, for instance, we could change how or where we do something."

So far, few management decisions have been influenced by beetle kill-related research, though.

"Right now, we're still focused on areas of urban interface and the health and safety issues with the trees," Best said. "Once we get all of that done, we can look at specific areas and projects."

A single study doesn't prove much. It takes study after study to confirm relations, and, ultimately, conditions on the ground surpass theory.

Just ask Best, who was braced for a total annihilation of old stands of lodgepole pine trees in his forest.

"Two years ago, we thought we'd lose every single mature lodgepole pine out here," he said. "What we've seen is actually 80 to 95 percent, but there's still some green here."

And, even in those smaller swaths, old trees play a distinct role in forest succession.

"That diversity is important for getting a new forest established," Best said.

And it's science, not just personal observation, driving that thought.

"It's important we coordinate with every agency and resource available," Best said. "That's the best way for us to make informed decisions."

Information from: Rawlins Daily Times, http://www.rawlinstimes.com