Alberta steps up pine beetle fight, challenges federal government to do the same

The battle against mountain pine beetles in Alberta has received a significant boost, $20 million over the next four years.

The budget delivered last week by the United Conservative Party included the increase for mitigation efforts for the beetle, which has been destroying forests throughout the province. The new money will bring annual funding to $30 million per year.

“The cost of doing nothing is not acceptable,” Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen said Friday.

The money will go toward additional ground survey and control work on more than 83,000 hectares of forest.

An increase in funding for pine beetle efforts in provincially managed forests was one of the campaign promises made by the UCP in the spring, an effort to reverse decreases in funding under the NDP government.

According to annual reports for Agriculture and Forestry, spending for pine beetle mitigation dropped from $28.5 million in 2016-17 to $25 million in 2017-18.

Now Alberta is challenging the federal government to also step up its efforts to protect forests in Western Canada.

Beetles don’t respect boundaries

“Alberta and Saskatchewan are both funding mountain pine beetle programming and we will continue to press Ottawa to take this seriously,” Dreeshen said in a news release.

Many Albertans judge the progress of the pine beetle by the devastation in Jasper National Park but Janice Cooke, a biological sciences professor at the University of Alberta, said the national park is under federal jurisdiction.

Efforts by the federal government have been improving, Cooke told CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM on Thursday, but the problem is that action was not taken quickly enough.

“In the intervening time between when we first saw beetles arriving in Jasper National Park and today, those populations — as we know — grew really high,” she said.

Since about 2015, the beetles, which “don’t respect jurisdictional boundaries,” have moved into forests out the park, venturing into Hinton and beyond, she said.

“[They’ve moved] into forests that are not only important for commercial forestry, they’re environmentally important and they’re also the forests that we value for recreation,” she said.

“These are multi-use forests. They’re very important to us as Albertans and it’s hard to watch the beetle have its way in those areas.”

Maps tracking beetle populations in Alberta have shown steady improvement in their control. Efforts generally involve aerial surveys in the fall, looking for fading, yellowing trees that have been attacked in the summer.

Those trees are then individually removed and burned on the spot, preventing the larvae under the bark from emerging as adults and moving to kill other trees, Cooke said.

A population forecast map from spring 2019 shows areas with the highest numbers of the beetle — near Edmonton, Whitecourt and Slave Lake — are significantly smaller than in 2018.

The funding increase was welcomed both by Cooke and Paul Whittaker, president of the Alberta Forest Products Association.

“We only need to look west to British Columbia to see the widespread environmental degradation and lost jobs that occur when too little action is taken to fight the scourge of the mountain pine beetle,” Whittaker said in a news release.


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