It's already been 10 years since Northern New Mexico saw its piñon trees take a major hit from tiny bark beetles.

While a new epidemic is not likely to be as bad as the last round, our trees are under attack again. Observers with the US Forest Service and in the tree care industry say bug infestations are killing piñon—and this time juniper—in notable numbers.

Populations of twig beetles and bark beetles have surged in the region, causing an uptick in tree deaths. The US Forest Service is midway through its annual aerial photography project, but already they can see trouble.

"It appears to me that this is significant," says Debra Allen-Reid, supervisory entomologist with agency's Forest Health New Mexico zone. "We are starting to see quite a bit of mortality. We don't have figures yet because we are still flying."

Twig beetles are munching local trees
Twig beetles are munching local trees | US Forest Service, Dan Ryerson

Allen-Reid was around for the 2003-04 bark beetle drama that killed up to a third of piñon in what the agency classifies as lower elevations of Northern New Mexico. She says, many of those trees became established during a particularly wet period following the 1950s drought and were no longer getting sufficient moisture as drought conditions set in again 50 years later.

One of the differences for the current die-off, she notes, is that rather than seeing only one species of trees go brown, the insects are hitting other conifers such as junipers, Douglas fir and spruce.

The problem isn't relegated to the dense National Forest, either.

Eric Hjelmfelt recently moved with his wife from Eldorado to a wooded lot a few miles from the Plaza. He started seeing brown branches in the yard about five weeks ago.

"It was just lightning fast," he says, "From when I first noticed it, there were three or four dead within a week."

The trees were planted too close together and probably didn't get watered during a long period that the home was vacant, he says. Allen-Reid, who also lost a tree to beetles in her yard this summer, describes that kind of stress as the perfect recipe to make a tree vulnerable to insect infestation.

Jeff Freeman, a tree care specialist at Tree Technologies, answered Hjelmfelt's call for help.  Freeman agrees that this season's problem isn't as severe as the one a decade ago, but says he's seeing the die-off all over the Santa Fe area.

"The twig beetle normally doesn't kill the tree, but this is such a bad infestation that it's killing them," he says, noting that in the last month, his family business has been busy with similar calls.

With such a wet monsoon season in the region, conventional wisdom might lead one to think trees have had enough water, but the experts say what really matters is how wet trees are in the spring, which has a direct relationship to snowpack levels.

"We are not really through the drought," says Allen-Reid. "We have had some moisture and we have sort of recovered, but that's a little bit misleading."

If there's no slow-melting spring snowpack to give deep drinks as trees are coming out of dormancy, trees begin to show stress, and that's when beetle populations get more successful. After a few years of that cycle, she says, the consequence is deadly.

Trees that are turning brown now from beetles are already likely lost, Allen-Reid says, noting that most insecticides that are effective against these bugs need to be applied in the spring. Read an FAQ from the State Forestry Division for more info.