Alberta ponders where to fight pine beetle
Published Sunday, March 16, 2008 11:55AM EDT
CALGARY - Alberta is looking to punch the pine beetle as hard as possible in the southern rockies this year while hoping that this winter's cold snaps have been enough to slow the forest-destroying bug's progress in the northwest corner.
But one of Canada's top pine beetle experts says the province should do the exact opposite -- throw as many resources as possible into the north to halt the insect's advance into the boreal forest, which stretches eastward right across the country.
"This winter has probably given us the leg up that we wanted, but what we need to do now is to kick the thing when it's down,'' says Allan Carroll, a research scientist with Natural Resources Canada.
"While the infrastructure is in place, we need people to scour the forest and go after it with everything we can muster.
"The highest probability of suppression success with the mountain pine beetle is when the population is low.''
While the beetles are hibernating over winter, natural antifreeze they produce means only sustained temperatures of below -40C are likely to cause a significant kill.
Carroll warns that while northern Alberta's pine beetle population might be suffering from a harsh winter hangover, it won't last forever. And replacement beetle troops will likely be blown in later this summer.
Scientists are worried about evidence that shows the pine beetle has already jumped from its favourite food of lodgepole pine -- found mainly in Western Canada -- to jack pine, a species that grows across Canada.
The pine beetle epidemic has already ravaged neighbouring British Columbia and is expected to destroy almost 80 per cent of all mature pines in that province within the next five years. It will cost billions of dollars in damage to that province's largest industry and have a major economic impact.
Alberta has been bracing for the onslaught as the beetle rides the winds eastward in search of new host trees. But several bouts of severe cold weather -- particularly in the north -- over the past months have triggered rare optimism among beetle battlers.
Alberta Sustainable Resource Development spokesman Duncan MacDonnell says the province's dead beetle count in May should reveal "significant mortality rates'' in the west-central part of the province, where infestation has been the worst.
"That's what all the science tells us we should expect. Because we hit the cold temperatures for the duration of time that we needed to have a significant impact,'' MacDonnell says.
"However, in southwestern Alberta, we know we did not hit those temperatures, so it was not cold enough there to have a significant impact on the mortality.
"We also know that in southwestern Alberta we've got those beetle populations in B.C. creeping right up to the border. And that's more of a hot-spot for us now than anywhere else.''
In recent months, Alberta has developed an infestation strategy that grades pine beetle forests into three categories: leading edge, holding zone and salvage.
Most of the pine beetle measures in Alberta are currently limited to the leading-edge zone where single, afflicted trees are burned, peeled or ground down.
The holding zone and salvage categories generally involve either clear-cutting diseased forest areas or lighting controlled forest fires.
Cold and wet weather last fall stymied plans to light three major "prescribed burns'' along Alberta's boundary with British Columbia. There's hope conditions will improve enough in the next few months to allow fires to be set before the hot summer forest-fire season sets in.
As for clear-cutting, forestry companies have been told by Alberta officials to re-focus their harvesting on areas most threatened by the beetle.
In the popular foothills region west of Calgary that butt up against both provincial and national mountain parks, Spray Lake Sawmills has been hard at work this winter logging in beetle-threatened cut-blocks.
"We were trying to leave any of the spruce or the fir or poplar _ the non-pine-beetle target species _ behind, trying to make it in such a way that it wasn't going to be too unsightly,'' says company spokesman Gord Lehn.
"But let's face it, a fresh cut-block is still a fresh cut-block.''
There are other groups who believe Alberta is making an environmental mess of things instead of leaving it to nature.
"Their view is that they have to throw everything, and the kitchen sink, and burn the house down to fight this thing, and it just seems silly,'' says Cliff Wallis of the Alberta Wilderness Association.
He says last winter's cold weather is likely to have the biggest impact.
"All we're doing is causing more watershed damage and more damage to critical caribou range.''