Dangerous, quick-spreading tree disease introduced to Utah

OGDEN CANYON, Utah — A fungal tree disease, which has destroyed millions of trees in the United States, has been detected in Utah for the first time.

“We were sick to our stomachs thinking about what it might be,” arborist Jerry Auble said as he stood along the banks of the river in Ogden Canyon.

It’s something he never thought he would see in Utah.

“I wanted to cry,” Auble continued as he stared up into the trees.

A few months ago, he was standing in this same spot, but he had a different view.

“There’s a good 50 to 70 trees right there that have been… they’re done, they’re dead,” Auble said. “This is a slow-moving forest fire.”

Auble is an International Society of Arboriculture-certified arborist who specializes in tree diseases and diagnosis. His day-to-day is spent handling landscaping related calls for a local lawn, tree and pest control company in Layton called Harmon and Sons.

But his expertise was called into play in mid-July when he was called out to a home in Ogden Canyon to give a second opinion on a patch of dead and dying American Elm Trees along the riverbank.

“There was kind of a concern that the vines were strangling the tree, but as we looked more and more, it was like… no, that’s an insect issue,” Auble said.

“I knew there was a bark beetle that carries a fungus,” Auble recalled. “I really hope this isn’t what I think it might be.”

Harmon and Sons took it upon themselves to figure out what they were dealing with. They sent samples from the trees to the Oregon State University (OSU) Plant Clinic, handling Botany and Plant Pathology. Auble said they also presented their curiosities to the University of Utah, but the school was unable to conduct the type of testing they needed.

“We got a text from the Plant Pathology Lab up there and they confirmed our suspicion," Auble said. "Ophiostoma — it was dubbed years ago as Dutch Elm Disease."

Dutch Elm Disease is a quick-spreading fungal disease that plugs the vascular system of the American Elm tree.

The fungal disease was first introduced to the United States in 1930 when a furniture manufacturer ordered wood from Europe. It has since killed an estimated 70 million American Elm trees across the east coast and mid-west.

Upon returning to the site a few weeks later, they walked down river a few hundred yards and found dozens of trees that had already fallen victim to the "wilting disease."

“[The trees] just starve for moisture, for water. That’s primarily why it kills the tree,” Auble said.

They then located a section of trees that appeared to be ‘ground zero’ for the disease, likely having been dead for at least a year.

“Knowing the background, we realized what we walked into was sickening,” Auble said.

“You can see the devastation in such a small area,” he said as he pointed again towards the grouping of 70 or so trees. “The clean-up alone in here, on this part of what we’re seeing, could easily go into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The disease is spread by the European Elm Beetle which carries the fungus.

The beetle burrows under the bark and creates a path to lay its eggs. When the eggs hatch, the larvae spread along the surface of the hardwood, creating their own path -- further spreading the fungus and leaving behind a unique pattern in the wood. When the larvae change into adult beetles, they fly to nearby Elm trees and feed on the canopy before starting the cycle over again.

“They have a very unique pattern to their egg galleries,” Auble said.

“See that butterfly pattern?” Auble asked as he pulled off a section of bark and pointed to small tracks in the wood. “They leave a scar in the wood.”

After a quick search, Auble found one of the beetles in that same piece of wood.

“There he is,” Auble said as he pointed to a small black dot on his hand. “They are not very big, they are less than an eighth of an inch long.”

However, once the disease is there, a beetle does not need to be present for it to spread. Auble said American Elm trees cross root paths, giving the fungus a second route, “they just go from root, to root, to root, to root.”

Once the beetle makes its way to a host, it can kill the tree in as little as six weeks and live inside of a dead tree for up to two years.

The loss of the American Elm trees could have a severe environmental impact.

“You lose the trees, the trees hold up the riverbank, now we’re going to have erosions issue, other invasive species will come in, we’re going to lose other wildlife habitat, we’re going to have contaminated water, we’re going to have a change of climate because the canopy’s going to be gone,” Auble listed. “You get this profound overwhelming feeling of 'ugh.'”

The disease isn’t easy to stop. It is 99 to 100 percent fatal to the infected tree. There is no cure, and given the location of the infected trees in Ogden Canyon, there are even more problems.

“One of the ways to stop it is cut the trees down, debark the trees, grind the stumps, stack up the bark and burn it," Auble said. "This is not a place conclusive of that."

Pesticides are also not an option for treatment, given the proximity to the Ogden River.

As of now, there is no estimate on how far the disease has spread. Auble said he and his team have been inhibited by rough, hard-to-access terrain – largely located on private property.

Already, they estimate damage control in Ogden Canyon will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but in just a few years it could be millions. Leaving behind a dangerous and costly problem – that they believe, is just getting started.

Auble is now calling on the community to do their part in preventing further spread of the disease. They ask residents with American Elm trees to be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of Dutch Elm Disease.

“The limbs up on the canopy will start to fold over, turn yellow and then brown and they wilt so quickly they usually don’t even drop the leaves,” he explained. “A lot of the leaves are small, they’re wilting, you’re seeing a lot of the early symptoms of the disease.”

While there is not a cure for Dutch Elm Disease, there is a preventative anti-fungal treatment that can be given to the tree. But it isn’t 100 percent effective and it does not work on trees that have already been contaminated.

Arborists said it would be difficult to pinpoint exactly how Dutch Elm Disease spread to Utah, but believe it was likely transmitted through firewood.

In order to use infected wood for home burning, Auble said the bark needs to be removed, buried and burned, and then the hardwood can be used. Auble also said pesticides can not be used on the wood prior to burning, as the chemicals will burn into the air and stay in the person's home.

To help prevent the spread to American Elm dense areas like Salt Lake City, arborists are urging Utahns not to carry firewood out of Ogden Canyon unless it has been properly prepared.

“It’s one thing to deal with it up here in the forest, but Salt Lake City has a lot of American Elm Trees,” Auble said. “Just the aesthetic loss would be hard to put a price on.”

Auble said they plan to do as much work as they can to isolate the diseased trees and contained the spread before it continues to move.

They have reached out to several state and local agencies for help, but said they plan to hold a community event in the spring to help them take the situation into their own hands. They are looking for volunteers who have arbor related skillsets for this project.

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