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November 2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal


Search and Destroy

A search and destroy strategy in Alberta is helping to fight the march of the mountain pine beetle from the BC Interior, and is part of a larger effort to ensure the beetle does not threaten the entire country’s pine resource.

By Tony Kryzanowski

When you come down to it, the only barriers preventing the mountain pine beetle from cutting a path of destruction across Canada’s entire pine forest are the Rocky Mountains along the Alberta-British Columbia boundary, the potential for a cold Alberta winter, and fire. That’s why the province’s take-no-prisoners approach to counteracting the migration of the mountain pine beetle across the mountains is so critical to the forest industry. A good example of that is the harvesting and burning this past summer of 110 square kilometres of lodgepole pine forest in the Willmore Wilderness Park north of Jasper to hopefully stop one visible invasion in its tracks.

Also, for the fifth year in a row, the province banned importing pine logs between May 1 and October 1, when the beetle typically takes flight and migrates. One infested tree can produce enough beetles to infest up to 15 additional trees.

According to Hideji Ono, manager of the forest health section of the Alberta Sustainable Resource Development Department, research has shown that only the Jeffery pine species—which is native to California—is not susceptible to a pine beetle attack. Therefore, should the outbreak currently contained within the BC Interior be allowed to migrate unabated eastward, the country’s entire jackpine forest is at risk. “If the beetle is allowed to spread, it’s going to go straight across Canada,” says Ono.

The beetles have shown that they are capable of flying over the mountains during their annual flight between June and August, “but the chance of them surviving or finding suitable host trees is very low,” says Ono. However, the pine beetle will find a plentiful food source consisting of its preferred diet of mature pine trees all along mountain passes, largely due to years of aggressive forest fire suppression to protect the working forest and national parks. So when they take flight eastward, they have predictably been found along these mountain passes.

The hot spots between BC and Alberta are: the Dawson Creek area northwest of Grande Prairie; the Willmore Wilderness Park; the highway corridor through Jasper National Park from Mount Robson to Hinton; the highway corridor from BC through Banff National Park; the Elk Valley in BC leading to Kananaskis Country in Alberta; the Crowsnest Pass in the far south; and, to a lesser extent, the corridor along the David Thompson Highway in central Alberta.

When beetle-affected timber is discovered in Alberta, the response is immediate: the province’s own fire fighting crews are mobilized to do a cut and burn.

To put the potential for devastation that an outbreak has into perspective, it’s predicted that 80 per cent of BC’s lodgepole pine resource will be attacked by 2013, and that in 10 to 15 years, 200 million cubic metres of the species will be dead and unsalvageable.

The mountain pine beetle is a bark beetle that introduces blue stain fungi into the trees when they attack, although research has shown that the fungi has no impact on the strength of lumber manufactured from infected trees if they are harvested within a specified time frame. However, over time, the fungi, along with insect feeding, will kill the tree by cutting off the flow of nutrients and water.

In an attempt to manage the problem and maximize recovery from infected trees, BC has developed a series of zones within the infected Interior area, differentiated by the extent to which the beetle has overrun each zone. Responses have included cut and burn as well as timely logging for smaller outbreaks, containment in the case of larger outbreaks through fire and logging, heli-logging, prescribed burns, and, finally, log salvage in areas where the beetle has gotten out of control.

For the past two years, Alberta and BC have cooperated on beetle control along the border, with Alberta funding $500,000 of BC’s effort last year. BC has allocated $10 million to the task of border control this year, and Alberta will once again supplement that with an as yet to be determined level of funding.

Thankfully for the forest industry, Ono says the infestation so far seems to be contained to within 30 kilometres of the Alberta or national park borders. The province uses aerial surveys to identify “faders,” which are discoloured trees that appear typically a year after an attack. Response is immediate, with the mobilization of either the province’s own fire fighting crews or by contracting the service out.

“Our level one strategy is 100 per cent control, which means search and destroy,” says Ono. “If we are unable to control it to that extent for logistical reasons, then we will switch to containment to stop the beetle population from spreading.”

While the beetle has been stopped in its tracks for the moment, the danger of a national epidemic is still imminent, as two factors are working to foil complete eradication of the problem on the Alberta side. These are milder Alberta winters and a continually maturing pine forest due to fire suppression.

While this might rile ski resort owners, what is needed to largely eradicate the beetle problem is what occurred in the winter of 1984, during the last significant outbreak of the mountain pine beetle. That winter, the temperature dropped to minus 30 degrees Celsius for an extended period of time during October and November. A cold snap of this magnitude effectively brought that infestation to a screeching halt. However, Alberta has not witnessed that type of winter for the past 10 years.

“If climate warming is occurring, then we are going to have a problem,” says Ono, “because the insect is expanding its range eastward and northward.” For example, the insect’s presence in the Dawson Creek area of northeastern BC is the first time it has shown up in that part of the province. The presence of the beetle in this area has made it a prime target for countermeasures because of its location next to the highly valuable pine forest near Grande Prairie, and the fact that there are no physical barriers to allow the beetle to spread eastward unabated from this location.

“Insects can expand their range through natural adaptation,” says Ono.“But normally, that takes longer. If climate warming is occurring, that’s going to multiply the problem.”

As part of its beetle management strategy, and recognizing that a main contributor to the problem is the overall age of the pine resource, the province is developing a plan to reduce the age class of the lodgepole pine forest in high-risk areas. Companies with these areas included in their Forest Management Areas (FMAs) will be expected to focus harvesting activities there, with the potential that the province may increase the annual allowable cut to lower the population of mature lodgepole pine.

Alberta and national park administrators have also agreed to work together to reduce the mature pine component along and within the mountain parks to both counteract beetle invasions and to increase ecological biodiversity within the parks.

Research has shown that park forests need periodic fires as a natural rejuvenator. Over the past decade, national park managers have discovered that years of fire suppression within the parks has in fact changed their natural appearance in some areas. For example, photos taken from the beginning of the 20th century in Jasper National Park show a lot more grassland and Douglas fir in areas now dominated by pine forests, due to fire suppression. Park managers are now using prescribed burns to give parks a more natural appearance, to reduce the risk of a massive catastrophic forest fire by using smaller fires to create fire breaks, and to improve biodiversity. In some cases, they have even allowed carefully controlled logging to achieve certain specific fire protection and biodiversity objectives.

While a beetle infestation is a natural occurrence, Ono says national park officials realize that they cannot allow the mountain pine beetle to escape to the working forest through national park corridors because the risk of a massive outbreak east of the Rockies is simply too high.


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