The infestation began five summers ago: A thick swarm of mountain pine beetles rode prevailing winds above tree canopies, eastward from British Columbia, to set down for the first time ever in west-central Alberta.
After the insect had irrevocably chewed through B.C.’s forests – the ultimate toll will see one-third of the province’s forests dead, with as many as 20,000 jobs lost – the beetle’s en-masse arrival in Alberta looked like scientists’ worst fears realized. An ugly picture took shape: the spread of one of Canada’s worst-ever environmental catastrophes, a ruined boreal forest, the scourge travelling inexorably eastward toward Ontario.
But in a combination of weather-aided luck, the wisdom of lessons learned in British Columbia and an aggressive $250-million counterattack, Alberta sees the first signs that it is winning the fight to stop the voracious plague. Much is at stake: While the province is known for oil and natural gas, forestry is the No. 3 industry, generating $11-billion annually and 44,000 jobs for the economy. And the spectre of further advance, with untold economic damage across the country, has made Alberta – for now – Canada’s bulwark against the beetle.
In a normal forest, the pine beetle plays a valuable role: It feeds on older pine trees, which ensures the health of the forest in general, making room for younger pine and other trees. However, because of warmer winters, and the suppression of fires, forests in Western Canada became crowded with old pine – a buffet for the hungry beetle.
In British Columbia, when the current carnage began in the mid-1990s, the province and industry didn’t react with force, since infestations had occurred before and died out. Alberta’s advantage has been hindsight, the template of failure in British Columbia.
The front lines of the fight are not spectacular. An hour west of Calgary, in the Rocky Mountains, a two-man crew is at work on a blustery day in mid-December. They haul in a chainsaw and, depending on locations, hike through snow or blast in on snowmobile.
The main work happens in January, February and March, when teams are dispatched to specific sites marked by GPS. These spots had been identified in late summer aerial surveys conducted by low-flying helicopters, hunting for telltale red, dead needles amid stands of healthy green pine.
It is here the fight is engaged, the one-by-one removal of individual and newly infested pine trees.
Each summer, new beetles emerge from under the bark of dead trees to mass-attack nearby live ones. Guided by GPS, the crews find exact evidence of the beetles’ victory: holes they’ve bored all over the bark to dig into the tree.
Taking down the freshly dead pine is like excising a cancer. Such a tree otherwise could spawn enough beetles to attack as many as 10 trees the following summer, a disease metastasized.
Infected trees are hacked down, chopped up and burned. In sight of former Olympics venue Nakiska Mountain Resort, the buzz of Ross Wilson’s chainsaw rings through the wind-whipped trees. Mr. Wilson has battled the beetle since 2006 and will spend this winter northwest of Edmonton, where the province struggles to hold the line.
In the popular recreation region of Kananaskis Country west of Calgary, the fight is mostly won. With the iconic Banff National Park next door, the indelible stain of dead red pine trees that eventually turn a ghastly grey was not a welcome postcard picture. After workers took down a peak of 31,000 trees in Southwestern Alberta three winters ago, only 180 are flagged for this season.
“It’s surprising, how sharp the decrease has been,” said government forest health officer Brad Jones, in a light Newfoundland lilt.
The situation in the northwest, around Grande Prairie and Whitecourt, remains fragile. Nearly 170,000 trees are slated to be cut down this winter, up from 148,000 a year ago.
Alberta’s efforts have been greatly aided by weather.