A new estimate by the Texas Forest Service says that as many as 500 million trees have died this year because of the drought. Using data from foresters, the group estimated that “100 million to 500 million trees with a diameter of 5 inches or larger on forestland were estimated to have succumbed to the drought.” That’s anywhere from two to ten percent of the 4.9 billion trees in Texas.
The extreme drought, sustained high winds and record heat this year wrought havoc on Texas’ trees. “Large numbers of trees in both urban communities and rural forests have died or are struggling to survive,” Burl Carraway, department head of Sustainable Forestry at the service said in a statement.
Three areas were hit the hardest: south of San Angelo towards west Texas, several counties “saw extensive mortality among Ashe junipers,” the service says. The Houston area lost lobolly pines, and Bastrop county and surrounding areas had “extensive mortality” of cedars and post oaks.
How did the service come up with the estimate? Carraway said in an interview that “it’s a difficult process, especially this time of year when hardwood trees naturally don’t have their leaves.” The service went through a process where they talked to 15 to 20 local experts throughout the state and worked with them to estimate a range of how many trees had been killed this year due to the drought. These levels of mortality are “probably unprecedented in terms of what we’ve seen since we’ve been collecting this data,” he says.
The service is planning to do a more detailed analysis in the spring, “which is when trees that may have gone into early dormancy — an act of self-preservation — could begin to make a comeback,” they say.
“During this time of year, it’s difficult to tell in some cases if a tree is truly dead,” Carraway says. “And keep in mind that the drought is ongoing. We fully expect mortality percentages to increase if the drought continues.”
While the sight of dead and dying trees has become almost common, and the numbers of lost trees staggering, the Forest Service is somewhat optimistic. “Forests in Texas are very resilient,” Carraway says, “and I do expect that they will recover when the drought is over. That said, if we see another year or two of drought, I would expect to see more mortality. But eventually the forest will recover.”