PLANT

Predicting the pine beetle’s next move


November 1, 2008
by Kim Laudrum

Researchers are taking samples of healthy trees in an effort to understand what makes them resistant to pine beetles.

Photos: Jack Scott/University Of Alberta

No one thought the mountain pine beetle could cross the Rockies. In the past decade, the indigenous pest that infests and kills lodgepole pine has devastated 3.5 million hectares of pine forests in BC—an area four times the size of Vancouver Island. The grain-sized insect is expected to kill an estimated 76% of the province’s total pine forests within the next seven years.

The problem, although severe, had been confined mainly to the BC interior. Sustained cold temperatures—about -40 degrees C—will kill mountain pine beetles, and Alberta’s winters used to be that cold. But with climate change, not anymore. In July 2006 strong winds blew the beetles over the mountains and into Alberta. Six million hectares of pine forest are now at risk, mainly in the foothills and in areas to the north of the province near Slave Lake.

While that might sound alarming enough, consider this: scientists say the bug is also capable of infecting other types of pine trees, including the ubiquitous jack pine, found in the boreal forest that stretches right across the country. It’s a threat to Canada’s $80-billion forest industry, already swooning from an economic crisis precipitated by the crash of the housing market in the US and the subsequent crash in lumber prices, high Canadian dollar, Softwood Lumber Tax, and—in Alberta at least—rising labour and energy costs stemming from the province’s economic boom.

In the last two years, the Alberta government has spent $138 million to control the pine beetle infestation. Management methods mainly identify infested trees and either remove them—by burning them or hauling them out by helicopter—or harvest healthy trees around them. Both methods are either risky—forest fires are difficult to control—or expensive. But the beetles really don’t care if the trees they eat are on Crown land, native land, provincial park land, managed forests or residential areas, which complicates matters.

In response to the invasion, the Alberta government updated its mountain pine beetle management strategy in December 2007. One of those strategic steps includes the funding of a research initiative, called the TRIA project, funded jointly by Genome British Columbia and Genome Alberta, a not-for-profit research centre in partnership with Genome Canada, Industry Canada and the Province of Alberta. Researchers on the TRIA project are investigating the genetic relationship between the mountain pine beetle and the water- and nutrient-depriving blue-stain fungus it carries with it as it burrows under the lodgepole pine tree’s bark. Once infected, the tree will turn red and die within a year.