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Top 40 feet of big Custer State Park tree dies

RAPID CITY (AP) -- The top 40 feet of one of South Dakota's largest trees is dead and officials are not sure what happened.

The 300-year-old Ponderosa pine that towers 130 feet is known at Custer State Park as the "Big Tree," and over the years has survived fires and beetle attacks.

The Big Tree could have been infected by a number of things, said John Ball, a forest health specialist with the South Dakota Department of Agriculture.

"At that height, it might be pine engraver beetle," Ball told the Rapid City Journal. "It may have died back from natural causes, as some of these trees do during dry times."

Most of the tree is still green and alive, Ball said. He said he plans to climb the tree this fall to try to find out what happened.

Retired National Forest Service employee Frank Carroll said mountain pine beetle could be responsible for the death of the top of the tree. Carroll said the mountain pine beetle has killed a lot of the forest in and around Custer State Park.

"Custer Mountain is just a disaster area right now, and that's right on the edge of the park," Carroll said.

The Big Tree was hit by pine beetles in 2005, when beetles attacked one side of the tree, said Matt Snyder, park superintendent.

The tree has been sprayed for beetles regularly since 2006, but it was not sprayed last year, Snyder said.

"Last year, there was some miscommunication between the park and the contractor and it got missed," he said.