That’s one nasty beetle!

Alberta faces almost impossible task of stopping pine beetles from spreading
2 hours, 9 minutes ago
By John Cotter, The Canadian Press
EDMONTON – Crews armed with chainsaws and fire are fanning out across Alberta this winter, facing the almost impossible task of stemming the eastward spread of the voracious mountain pine beetle.
After destroying or infesting as many as 75 per cent of British Columbia’s mature lodgepole pines, the insects have flown deep into north-central Alberta in search of more trees to ruin. The beetles are also firmly entrenched west and south of Calgary.
The tiny scourge threatens the jobs of thousands of forestry workers and the environmental health of watersheds that feed rivers that run across the prairies. And the dead and dying trees they leave in their wake will pose a significant risk of wildfire for years to come.
That’s one nasty little bug.
“We don’t operate under any assumptions that we are going to completely eradicate the mountain pine beetle. It is here to stay in Alberta,” says Erica Lee, Alberta’s senior forest health manager. “But we can definitely have a significant impact on their population and the potential damage we may see.”
Adult beetles bore under the bark of lodgepole pines in the summer and fall, laying eggs and leaving a fungus that slowly kills a tree, turning it red. The following summer, newly hatched beetles fly on prevailing winds looking for fresh mature pine trees to infest.
Alberta has never had so much mature pine, so its forests are a massive timber smorgasbord for the beetles.
Some scientists believe that once the beetles chew their way through the lodgepole pines they will attack other types of pine trees in the boreal forest that sprawls across much of northern Canada.
Allan Carroll, a University of British Columbia forestry science professor, says the eastward spread into the boreal is almost inevitable if current climate conditions persist. He warns it could happen much more quickly if Alberta fails to control the spread of the bugs.
“If the beetle populations remain in epidemic status in northern Alberta, the probability of invasion of the boreal forest in the short term – within five to 10 years – is very high,” says Carroll. “Large numbers of beetles lead to large flights, which lead to a higher probability of these large jumps in distance eastward.”
Alberta’s battle plan calls for cutting down and destroying individual and groups of infested trees, from Grande Prairie in the north to the Crowsnest Pass in the south, before the next generation of bugs can take flight. The challenge is that experts believe more than half a million trees are already infested.
Forestry companies are chopping down entire stands of mature pine before the bugs can ruin the timber. As well, controlled forest fires, called prescribed burns, are planned along the beetles’ invasion routes from B.C. to help stop their spread. There is also talk of burning swaths of timber north and west of Edmonton to create a buffer zone between the beetles and untouched forests.
Crews will also cut trees and remove deadfall near some communities to create wildfire buffer zones. Forest fires that tore through parts of British Columbia last summer were partly fuelled by beetle-killed timber, which generates extremely hot flames.
Just over $42 million has been earmarked for the campaign this season – a few million less than last year, as Alberta and Ottawa struggle with the economic downturn.
Alberta is banking on getting more bang for its beetle bucks by learning from mistakes made in British Columbia, where government and industry were slow to respond to the threat in the 1980s and 1990s in the hope that Mother Nature would kill the bugs off.
Frigid temperatures can wipe out large numbers of beetles, but they have an internal anti-freeze system that can allow them to withstand even -40C cold snaps. Last winter many of the insects died, but the survivors – reinforced by new swarms from over the mountains – made Alberta’s bad situation worse.
Alberta’s strategy for 2010 calls for aggressively removing infested trees wherever they can be found in a huge area the province calls its “leading-edge zone,” which extends to within a few hours’ drive of Edmonton. In some cases, crews in helicopters will swoop in to remove dead and dying trees before the new generation of beetles can start their work.
“We have worked with people from the B.C. Ministry of Forests and the beetle scientists at the Canadian Forest Service, developing our strategy to make sure we built on successes and didn’t repeat treatments in B.C. that were not effective,” says Lee.
Mountain pine beetles are native to parts of British Columbia and Alberta, but they’ve never been seen in such numbers before. They’ve also never before been found so far north and east in Alberta.
Some scientists believe global warming and drought have weakened pine forests, making them more susceptible to infestation. Government policies against setting forest fires over the years have also led to a glut of mature lodgepole pine trees.
Lee says there are no simple or quick solutions to the mountain pine beetle problem.
Alberta’s strategy for the coming year will probably just be the next battle in a long, expensive and difficult campaign.
“People are starting to realize that this is not going away,” says Lee.


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