Meade County officials issued a press release on Wednesday questioning the findings of a study by state officials that evaluated the county’s efforts to control mountain pine beetle.
In the same release, Meade County also criticized recent media coverage of the study.
The press release comes after a Dec. 17, 2013, investigation by the Capital Journal, which obtained a report from the office of the South Dakota Department of Agriculture state forester.
The report determined that, of the trees examined by state officials in Meade County in 2012, a majority of trees marked and cut were not actually infested by the bug. State officials said Thursday they stand by that study.
The trees were marked and cut as an effort to control the spread of mountain pine beetle in the Black Hills.
Meade County is not contesting the Capital Journal’s story. County officials, however, are critical of the coverage the story received after it was reported in different terms by other media outlets this week. In a press release entitled, “Meade County Refutes Report of Ineffective Mountain Pine Beetle Program,” Meade County officials said, “the information in the reports is not factual.”
Officials said that local media coverage was misleading, resulting in concerned citizens contacting county officials. Meade County commission assistant Jerry Derr said, “The headlines said Meade County killed more healthy trees than mountain pine beetles did.” Derr said the coverage was not accurately depicting what occurred in Meade County.
Derr said that Meade County was under an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, which allowed the county to cut down any tree deemed infested with mountain pine beetle. The Forest Service definition of an infested tree, he said, was determined by the presence of at least one pitch tube – a 1- to 2-inch mass of resin found on a tree trunk where beetle tunneling begins.
That definition, however, differed from the one used by state foresters, which said an infested tree was determined by the presence of five or more pitch tubes. This difference in definition is what led state officials to conclude that, of the trees examined by state officials, a number of healthy trees were killed in Meade and Lawrence counties.
The findings were released in a 2012 study performed by South Dakota State University Extension Forestry Specialist John Ball, along with USDA Forest Service Forest Health Team members Kurt Allen and Angie Ambourn. The study did draw any conclusions regarding the 6,214 trees on federal land cut by Meade County between Oct. 1, 2012, and Sept. 30, 2013.
The report was favorable of mountain pine beetle control efforts carried out by several Black Hills counties, but was more critical of efforts in Meade and Lawrence counties.
County officials contest a statement made by officials in the study that there was a “significant issue” in Meade County. Derr said that since Meade County was under contract with the Forest Service, the county followed the Forest Service definition of an infested tree. As a result, the Forest Service determined Meade County was successfully identifying infested trees.
The news release also questioned the reliability of the information critical of Meade County and specifically identified Ball, saying he released “false information” about the county’s efforts. “John Ball’s data, as reported in recent news articles, differs significantly from data he released earlier in the year to Meade and other counties,” the press release said.
Derr said that Ball’s initial report to a group working on the mountain pine beetle efforts had “no mention of accuracy of the tree count as an aspect he was studying.” Derr also said figures reported in the Capital Journal story were different than ones previously stated by Ball. These facts led Meade County officials “to the conclusion that it was not a reliable report,” Derr said.
Despite Meade County contesting the findings of the report, USDA state forester Ray Sowers stood behind the findings of the study. “I see no reason not to believe the content of the report,” Sowers said. “It was statistically sound and I have no reason to doubt that the report is accurate.”
John Ball could not be reached for comment due to travel.