EDMONTON — Alberta is facing a new and bigger invasion of tree-killing mountain pine beetles and is looking to the federal government for help in preventing the tiny insects from spreading further east into the boreal forest.
Crews report a new wave of the bugs flew into the province in July from British Columbia and the mountain national parks in Alberta.
The hardest hit areas are in northwest Alberta — the same region where a high percentage of the tiny beetles died off last winter from extreme cold.
Ted Morton, minister of sustainable resource development, said the beetles have penetrated as far east as Slave Lake, about 150 kilometres north of Edmonton.
“This summer’s inflight from British Columbia is one of the most severe we’ve had — apparently more severe than the 2006 inflight,” Morton told the legislature on Wednesday.
“This years’ flight does threaten the industry. A $9 billion industry — 38 thousand jobs. But also its effects on the boreal, the eastern slopes, the watersheds and habitat.”
Morton said Alberta will have to consider new strategies to contain the beetles, which have already destroyed about one-quarter of B.C.’s pine forests and are expect to ruin 75 per cent of the pine timber by 2015.
Those new strategies could include allowing forestry companies to cut entire stands of lodge pole pine instead of removing individual infested trees, he said.
Allan Carroll, a University of British Columbia forestry professor, called the new beetle migration a “worst case scenario.”
Scientists fear the bugs could eventually spread to jack pine forests that run east through Saskatchewan and beyond.
“Clearly this is not a good thing,” Carroll said from Vancouver. “I believe beetles are now situated reasonably close to pure jack pine in the boreal forest. Its arrival in the jack pine forests is going to be sooner than we anticipated.”
On a positive note, officials said the number of beetles did not surge in southwest Alberta.
But Carroll said Alberta now has to also worry about the beetles moving south to watersheds in the mountains west of Calgary that are the source of drinking water for the Prairie provinces.
The black beetles, which are about the size of a grain of rice, have an internal anti-freeze system that allows them to withstand frigid temperatures, but are susceptible to extreme cold snaps in the fall and spring or when winter temperatures fall below -35 C for consecutive days.
A fungus the bugs carry actually kills the trees, changing the colour of the needles from a healthy green to a rusty red.
The destruction wastes timber and creates an eyesore that can deter tourism. Dead stands of pine pose a significant fire threat and alter watershed ecosystems, which can affect fish and wildlife, change spring snow-melt patterns and cause flooding.
Alberta spent $55 million last year fighting the beetles and has earmarked about $10 million this year to stem the spread of the bugs. Morton suggested that Ottawa may contribute money toward keeping the beetles in check.
“Containing the spread of pine beetle is not just a concern to Alberta, it is a concern to all of Canada,” Morton said.
The new infestation does not come as a complete surprise to the province and other forestry experts.
Last summer the government was careful not to claim the fight against the beetle was over even after cold winter temperatures wiped out the vast majority of the bugs.
Alberta officials said at the time that they expected new swarms of the bugs and that it would take a number of successive cold winters to kill them off. But no one thought it would be this bad.
Carroll said it would make sense for the federal government to shift funding from B.C., where the beetle population is starting to collapse, to Alberta.
“This is not the time to back off. There is a very real possibility, if we can keep this effort going for a few years, that we can get over the top of it,” he said.
“If we slack off, then all bets are off.”