It was a hard winter for the trees, too. 

In particular the Siberian elms around Billings are struggling to bounce back after a winter that saw extended sub-zero temperatures, and before that, a particularly dry fall. 

"A lot of them got knocked back pretty hard," said Steve McConnell, city forester for Billings. "You'd think a tree with Siberian in its name would do a little better."

The worst cold snap of the winter hit in February, which went on to become the second coldest February on record for Billings. And it hit fast. The high on Feb. 2 was 52. The high on Feb. 4 was 3 below.

In fact, February saw 19 days of below-zero temperatures — sometimes down into double digits. On six of those days the high never rose above zero. It was so cold that the sub-zero temperatures stretched into the first five days of March. 

Before that, Billings had a warm, dry fall, which left the Siberian elms a little weaker than they normally would have been going into the winter. 

The stress caused by the frigid weather started to appear in June as the elms struggled to bud and their leaves began to grow. The Siberian elms have what appear to be large, dead sections with no leaves, especially in their crowns. 

Not all elms in town are Siberian elms, and McConnell said the only tree that seems to be affected by Billings' harsh winter is the Siberian. 

For homeowners who wonder whether the elm on their property is a Siberian, a good indicator is the leaf. Siberian elm leaves are markedly smaller than the leaves of their cousin, the American elm, McConnell said. 

However, the best test might be just looking at the tree. 

"Right now you can tell 'cause it's the one that looks really bad," he said. 

Siberian elms are invasive to Montana, and McConnell wouldn't mind seeing a few of them die off. The city doesn't plant them in the parks; they require more maintenance and aren't as majestic as the American elm. 

However, they're fairly resilient. 

"I think the trees that are afflicted will bounce back," McConnell said. 

For the past few years the city has focused much of its forestry expertise on ash trees. The emerald ash borer has been infecting ash trees in the eastern and central United States; McConnell said it's a matter of when — not if — the pest comes to Montana. 

"We're very concerned about it," he said. "And it's getting close." 

To the northeast, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada has reported ash trees killed off by the ash borer; to the south, Boulder, Colorado, is dealing with it.

The threat comes from the ash borer beetle, which lays eggs on the tree's bark. When they hatch, the larvae bore into the tree, feeding on the systems that transport nutrients and eventually killing it. 

About 20% of the trees on city property are ash, but most of that 20% is concentrated at Pioneer Park, Hawthorne Park, and the city cemetery, McConnell said.  

The city has been most active there, protecting the healthy ash trees and replacing older or sick ones with different breeds.

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