Warmer-than-normal winter weather has southern pine beetles spreading through South Jersey forests earlier than usual this year, state environmental officials said.

Officials with the state Department of Environmental Protection said they have already found southern pine beetle infestations in 26 South Jersey municipalities.

DEP officials said 22 of those municipalities are in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties. They also said there is some evidence that the beetles, which were first found in Cape May County, also are in Ocean County.

Surveillance flights are already tracking the beetles’ advance through South Jersey, DEP Commissioner Robert Martin said. Work crews are already cutting infested trees on state lands, he said.

DEP officials said they’re also trying something new this year: A special science advisory team is working to better understand the beetle’s behavior patterns in New Jersey. Results of the research could lead to better beetle containment efforts.

For instance, the beetle may be able to withstand New Jersey winters because the pitch pine trees it infests tend to have thicker bark than southern tree species, State Forester Lynn Fleming said. That thicker bark may provide the extra insulation the beetles need to survive the colder winters, she said.

Additionally, the New Jersey Forest Service is offering more than $315,000 in federal grant money to help counties, municipalities, private property owners and various organizations battle the spread of the beetle.

Ronald Corcory, project manager for the DEP’s southern pine beetle suppression efforts, said the grants are particularly important because some of the most extensive beetle-related damage is on private property.

“It’s critical to take action as soon as the infestation is spotted,” he said. “These grants will help private landowners, municipalities and others … pay for thinning, cutting and related suppression activities.”

“While it’s difficult to predict what the coming season will be like, we have to be prepared to fight the pine beetle on all fronts,” Martin said.

The southern pine beetle — which is slightly smaller than a grain of rice — kills pine trees by both burrowing through the trees and leaving a fungus in the trunks.

South Jersey is particularly at risk, as the region has about 440,000 acres of pine-dominated forests. DEP officials said more than 26,000 acres of forests in Wharton State Forest, Belleplain State Forest, Parvin State Park, Peaslee Fish and Wildlife Management Area, Millville Wildlife Management Area, Tuckahoe Wildlife Management Area and Union Lake Wildlife Management Area have been affected by southern pine beetles since 2001.

The southern pine beetle’s impact was less than expected in 2011, possibly because pine trees were less stressed because of abundant rainfall, according to the DEP.

The DEP estimates that about 7,000 acres of pine trees were lost to pine beetle infestations in 2011. That’s less than the 14,000 acres that were affected in 2010, a year that had relatively low precipitation, according to the DEP.

Fleming said that drop off shouldn’t create a “false sense of complacency” about the southern pine beetle.

“The southern pine beetle, which has been a big problem in the southeastern United States for many years, is relatively new to New Jersey,” she said.

No information was available from DEP on how much it has spent over the years to deal with the southern pine beetle.

The available grants include:

n The Forest Health Southern Pine Beetle Cost-Share Grant. This program provides grants of up to $7,500 to private owners of five or more acres of land. Eligible landowners must have a state-approved forest stewardship or woodland management plan that includes a southern pine beetle suppression plan. The landowner must provide 25 percent of the cost of the control activity.

n The Community Forestry Grant, which provides grants of up to $5,000 to help counties and municipalities plan and carry out southern pine beetle suppression. Eligible counties must have a working Community Forestry Management Plan, and provide an equal match in money and/or in-kind services.

n The New Jersey Forest Fire Service Community Wildfire Assistance Grant. This program provides up to $10,000 to civic organizations, homeowners associations, nonprofit groups and municipalities facing increased risks of wildfires because of damage caused by the beetles. The fire risk must first be documented in either a community wildfire protection or firewise community plan. Recipients must provide an equal match in money and/or in-kind services.

Are your trees infested?

Grant applications can be found at www.southernpinebeetle.nj.gov. Residents also may call the state Forest Service’s Trenton office at 609-292-2531 or southern regional office at 609-625-1124 for information or to report possibly infested trees.

Contact Thomas Barlas:

609-226-9197