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.
After beetles attack a tree, they mate, and baby beetles are soon hatched. Growing through the fall and winter beneath the bark, the larvae are susceptible to extreme cold weather. They feed on the tree’s phloem to help build up their reserves of glycol, an antifreeze, the key that keeps the beetles alive until spring and their eventual search for new pine. The beetles, by the coldest months of winter, are hardy enough that it takes severe, sustained temperatures toward -40 to kill them.
On his knees in the forest, carefully chiseling away the bark of a felled pine, Mr. Jones points to two black specks, barely the size of a pen tip. “There’s ma and pa,” he says. There are burrows away from the parents. This tree hasn’t been particularly savaged. “It can be a busy place under the bark of a tree that’s in bad shape,” he says. “And once they’re tucked in, they’re really resistant.”
“Sharp shocks” can score early kills. In the autumn, when the larvae are building their glycol reserves, if the temperature spikes suddenly lower to levels such as -25 from above zero, death can be widespread, as happened in December, 2008 and October, 2009. Another similar shock happened in March, 2010, just as the beetles were shaking off their winter defences.
In fact, bad outbreaks of pine beetle have occurred several times in the past century in British Columbia and Alberta, but severe cold eventually stopped the spread.
Complacency is what led to the B.C. disaster. By the early 2000s it was too late. “It took us a while to actually realize that it was different than a normal cycle,” said Bob Clark, a retired B.C. government forests official, who subsequently consulted to Alberta.
The strategy in British Columbia for several years now has been to harvest as much viable dead pine – before it’s completely decayed – to turn it into something useful, some of it lumber, some pulp, some wood waste for bioenergy.
At West Fraser Timber Co. in Quesnel, a small city at the heart of the plague in the B.C. Interior, the largest sawmill of North America’s largest lumber maker was completed three years ago for $120-million. It was specifically tailored for deadwood, replacing a less efficient mill. New technology intensively scans the flawed logs that hurtle through the mill, so the minimum of wood is trimmed and maximum value can be cut from the pine. “We’re in a full-scale salvage operation,” said Dave Lehane, a West Fraser vice-president.
North of Quesnel in Prince George, at the University of Northern British Columbia, scientist Dezene Huber is working on beetle DNA, in a coordinated multi-university effort to understand the insect and better attack it in the future. Analysis of genes reveals details of what’s clearly a formidable opponent. The genes involved in producing glycol to insulate beetle larvae through winter are similar to those that allow human marathon runners to endure long distances in a starvation-like state.
Prof. Huber, looking at the “economic tragedy” that’s waylaid small cities in the province’s Interior, calls the beetle in British Columbia a “slow-burning forest fire.”
“When you see a wildfire, a lot of times the gut reaction is: ‘What a phenomenal thing to see,’” Prof. Huber said. “But is it just burning harmlessly away from people – or is it on the edge of a town? Then it’s amazing, in a horrible way.”
Looking at Alberta, Allan Carroll is encouraged but ever-wary. Mr. Carroll, then a senior scientist for the federal government, watched for more than a decade as the beetle destroyed B.C.’s pine-heavy forests. Now, after counselling the Alberta government, and as a researcher at the University of British Columbia, he warns that the most dangerous misstep is an eased effort.
He likens it to department-store credits cards, whose usurious interest rates loom even if the balance owing is halved. The beetle could easily “blow up again in everyone’s face,” he said. “In Alberta, in the areas where we’ve watched it, it’s had the capacity to double, or triple, every year,” Mr. Carroll said. “That’s one heck of a big interest rate.”
The size of a grain of rice, Dendroctonus ponderosae – better known as the mountain pine beetle – is a small bark beetle, the most ravenous of its kind.
1. Adult beetles attack fresh targets in the late summer. Once the tree succumbs, eggs are laid below the bark and, several weeks later, white larvae with brown heads hatch.
2. The larvae munch the tree, in part so they can produce glycol, an antifreeze that allows the new beetles to mostly survive freezing winters.
3. New DNA research by the University of North British Columbia reveals that the beetle's genes are similar to those in rats and humans that help stave off starvation. “Like rats, if you starve rats, or in people, marathon runners, when they're entering what might be considered a stage of starvation,” said chemical ecology expert Dezene Huber of UNBC. “It seems the insects go through what looks like a marathon.”
4. The best beetle killer is severe cold. While sustained temperatures toward -40 in the winter is one death blow, the likelier kill comes from “sharp shocks” in the fall or spring, when the temperature suddenly falls from higher than zero to lower than -20.
5. By early summer, larvae become pupae and then shortly thereafter adults, ready to attack.
1. Beetle infestations have occurred in British Columbia several times in the past century. This epidemic emerged in several places in the mid-1990s, with the north side of Tweedsmuir Park being a particular hot spot.
2. By the early 2000s, the infestation was out of control and the beetle exponentially attacked. It killed 30-million cubic metres of forest in 2002, a figure that peaked at 140-million in 2005. Forestry companies now rush to salvage dead pine before it rots to useless quality.
3. By 2010, a total of 700-million cubic metres has been killed and is expected to drift higher toward one billion – three-quarters of all of B.C.'s pine trees and, on paper, as much as $30-billion lost.
4. In a somewhat perverse equation, B.C. foresters see a boom coming. Because the province previously supplied so much wood to North American markets, and with supply permanently reduced, industry executives and investors forecast “peak lumber” and a tight market thereafter. The price could spike when the U.S. housing market eventually recovers. Survivors will profit.
1. Alberta has had pine beetle infestations before – the mid-1970s to mid-1980s was the most recent. The current scourge began in force in June, 2006, when beetles from British Columbia flew to Alberta.
2. Last winter, an aggressive counterattack in the Banff National Park region, combined with a cold snap, stopped the beetle in Southern Alberta, where very little work is required this winter.
3. North of Jasper, the situation remains difficult in the beetle's hot spots. About 150,000 newly infected trees were taken down last winter; and upwards of 169,000 are in the dock this winter – compared with barely 200 in the south.
4. Although it appears Alberta can hold the line, new research by Allan Carroll of UBC indicates urgency remains. The beetles' march eastward across Canada is a “significant risk,” he said. Whether that happens quickly, or is measured in decades, depends on what happens in Alberta. “If the beetle remains in an outbreak population, its capacity to move large distances is still very high.”