Stressed by drought and already severely damaged by a massive pine beetle infestation, British Columbia's beleaguered forests are facing a second major insect attack.
Katherine Bleiker, a research scientist with Natural Resources Canada, said a regional spruce beetle outbreak in northeast B.C. is serious and could spread to a larger area.
"You are starting to see it everywhere," Dr. Bleiker said of the spruce beetle, which the provincial government identified last week as a major threat to forests in the Omineca region near Prince George.
She said while the infestation zone in B.C. is currently localized, bigger outbreaks in Alaska and Colorado could foreshadow what's to come for the province.
Spruce beetles are endemic to B.C.'s forests and there have been dozens of outbreaks over the past 50 years. But the big fear is that because forests have been weakened by drought and winters have become milder due to climate change, the spruce beetle could explode the way the pine beetle infestation spread across the province in the 1990s.
B.C.'s forest industry – which contributes $12-billion annually to the provincial GDP and supports an estimated 146,000 jobs – is still feeling the impact of the pine beetle infestation. Mills have had to close because of a shortage of pine, and the loss of spruce would be devastating.
Dr. Bleiker said she can't predict what will happen with the spruce beetle outbreak, but "when you see it popping up across the landscape," it raises fears that a widespread infestation could be in the making.
A spruce beetle infestation in Alaska has spread to 900,000 hectares over the past several years, while in Colorado, more than 165,000 hectares are infested.
"The spruce beetle is the same genus as the pine beetle, Dendroctonus … meaning tree killer, and it looks very similar to the mountain pine beetle except it's a little bigger," Dr. Bleiker said.
"If you look at all the outbreaks we've had in the past, they all start with an acute stress event … [and] what we are seeing now is that perhaps these trees are stressed more due to climate and weather."
Since the spruce beetle outbreak was first detected near Prince George three years ago, it has spread to 156,000 hectares.
"Only 7,653 hectares of damaged forest were seen in 2013, so the current infestation in parts of the Omineca region represents the biggest spruce beetle outbreak since the 1980s," the government stated in a news release.
Archie MacDonald, general manager of forestry for the Council of Forest Industries, said government and industry are co-ordinating plans on how to respond to the spruce beetle outbreak. "We learned from the mountain pine beetle that we need to get on to these things right away," he said.
Mr. MacDonald said spruce trees aren't as common in B.C.'s forests as pine, and that may help slow the beetle outbreak. "Spruce isn't as continuous as pine, so hopefully we can hold it to a much smaller area than with the pine beetle, but obviously when things become epidemic, it becomes very difficult [to control]," he said.
Steve Thomson, B.C.'s Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, announced last week that the province has committed $1-million to develop a regional plan in response to the spruce beetle infestation.
Spruce beetles bore into trees, creating extensive egg galleries in the phloem, or inner bark, which kills the trees. Because the beetles are found in the phloem layer, they are killed in the debarking process at mills.
Methods to contain beetle outbreaks include setting "tree traps," where patches of mature spruce are cut down by loggers to attract breeding insects. The trees are subsequently collected and taken to mills before the insects have a chance to breed. Under government guidelines, logging truck drivers are told not to stop when hauling infested trees from a cut block to a mill, and mill operators are instructed to develop a strategy "to detect and treat any spill-over attacks within three kilometres of each mill yard or storage area."