Province battles to keep mountain pine beetles at bay

Perry Bergson
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A Saskatchewan battle to fend off mountain pine beetles is being fought a province away.

Saskatchewan and Alberta announced earlier this week that they had have agreed to a three-year deal to work on mountain pine beetle management, renewing an agreement first signed in 2011.

Saskatchewan will provide $1.25 million this year to slow the spread of the voracious insects.

Saskatchewan’s Provincial Forest entomologist and pathologist Rory McIntosh, who is based at the Forestry Centre in Prince Albert, says it’s a good idea to act now.

“We’re better off fighting this battle in Alberta to prevent it from coming into Saskatchewan in an area where the forest is fragmented, it’s broken up,” he says.

“It’s a no-brainer. That’s the place to focus your activity is in this area where the beetles are going to have a harder time spreading.”

McIntosh is referring to the boreal bridge, a link between the native lodgepole pine stands in Alberta and B.C. and the Jack Pine stands that begin in Saskatchewan.

The mountain pine beetles have been voracious consumers of lodgepole pines. Less is known about how the insects will do in Jack Pines, but McIntosh says Saskatchewan has another natural barrier in place.

In B.C., there were massive forests of nothing but lodgepole pines. It’s different here.

“Many of the pine stands that are in that northwest area are in a matrix of hardwoods so there are little pockets of pine within this larger expanse of non-host hardwood,” he said. “The spread is going to be quite different in this new environment.”

The beetles were actually blown into Alberta in 2006 and 2009 from B.C. in storm cells across the Rocky Mountains.

About the size of a grain of rice, the mountain pine beetles can cut a wide swath of damage. In B.C., about 18 million hectares of lodgepole pine trees have been destroyed, which is about 60 per cent of their lodgepole pine inventory.

The beetle outbreak in B.C. is now largely in collapse because so many trees are dead.

The beetles kill the trees by colonizing under the bark; the combination of their feeding and a fungus they introduce then restricts the flow of nutrients up and down the tree.

It takes about a year for the tree to die. During that period, the tree develops pitch tubes, which look like a tree has been hit by shotgun pellets. They also attract woodpeckers.

The trees turn red when they die.

Alberta has baits set up in a grid system that tracks the spread of the insects. The closest beetle found in the north was about 120 km west of the Saskatchewan border. In the south, the beetles have been located in Cypress Hills.

Parallels can be drawn with the zebra mussel, which has clogged up lakes in North America after hitching rides on boats. McIntosh points out that the zebra mussel is an exotic organism that’s not native to Canada, unlike the pine beetle. But the spread can be similar.

“It can hitchhike, mostly under the bark in firewood and logs that have bark attached to them that came out of areas that have infected,” he says.

In the early 2000s, controls were set up that restricted the flow of logs that could contain the beetles or any products from those areas that had bark attached. The bans extended to B.C., Alberta and the U.S.

But just like the spread of fire, one small mistake can spark a giant problem.

“Anybody who is out camping, for example, in the national parks in Alberta, we don’t want to see them bringing firewood back with beetles in them,” he said.

Saskatchewan’s contributions to Alberta help pay for enhanced surveillance and monitoring, the removal of infested trees and research and modelling.

McIntosh refers to the problem in Alberta as the bridgehead and says the interprovincial deal will help to keep it there.

“We’re helping our neighbours to the west but we’re helping ourselves as well,” he says. “Prevention is always the best method and the most cost-effective strategy too. It makes sense to work there.”

Organizations: Forestry Centre

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C. Jack Pine Jack Pines Rocky Mountains Cypress Hills North America Canada U.S.

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