November 27, 2006

Alberta moves to second level in action plan against mountain pine beetle

A sharp upsurge in the number of trees in Alberta affected by mountain pine beetles has prompted the provincial government to move to the second level in its action plan to deal with the infestation. "We are stepping up our actions to include harvesting infested and susceptible stands of pine trees, in addition to the cutting and burning we have been doing," said David Coutts, Minister of Sustainable Resource Development.

Until recently, mountain pine beetle infestations had been relatively low in Alberta and had been detected mainly in parks, protected areas, on private lands and in and around the mountain passes in southern Alberta. Between 2002 and 2004 there was an average of 1,000 infested trees per year in Alberta. By 2005, the number had risen to 19,000.

Then in late July this year, there was an unprecedented massive flight of mountain pine beetles into northwestern Alberta, resulting in a significant increase in the number of infested trees. The most recent estimate puts the number between 800,000 and 1.5 million affected trees, based on an extrapolation of preliminary data from surveys, which are not yet completed. The numbers will change based on additional survey results.

The new infestation has occurred mainly in a large area north of Jasper National Park to Peace River, between the British Columbia border and Fox Creek. Affected trees have also been found in the Grande Prairie, Berwyn and Fairview areas. The beetles have never before been found this far north in Alberta or this far east of the BC border.

The Alberta government's mountain pine beetle action plan sets out control methods to be applied at different levels of infestation in different areas. The Level 1 response, used wherever possible, is to cut and burn individual infested trees. The Level 2 response calls for harvesting stands with infested trees and is applied when trees are found in the working forest (as opposed to parks and protected areas) and are accessible to companies to harvest.

Much of the new infestation has been found on land used by forest companies to harvest timber. On those lands, forest companies will harvest infested pine stands. They have also been asked to change their harvesting plans so they can focus on areas that are susceptible to these beetles.

The action plan includes a pine strategy as well as a beetle strategy: experts say long-term management should focus on pine trees, not the mountain pine beetle. In order to reduce the risk of infestation, the government seeks to reduce the number of susceptible stands across the landscape through harvesting and/or prescribed burns. The province has asked forest industry companies to focus on harvesting their most vulnerable stands now, and some companies are already working on their pine-focused harvesting plans.

Alberta Sustainable Resource Development has not approved any increases in forest companies' annual allowable cuts (AACs) at this point but may allow some short-term increases over the next few months, based on the new pine-focused harvesting plans submitted by forestry companies. The department says, however, that any and all short-term increases in AACs will eventually be followed by reductions in order to maintain sustainable forest management in the province.

The Alberta government spent $10 million on mountain pine beetle control programs in 2005-06, including a spread control program in BC, and has more than doubled its budget in this area to over $22 million for 2006-07.

Although alarming, the wave of infestation in Alberta is still minimal compared to the situation in BC, where 8.7 million hectares of pine forests are infested, and the beetle population is not expected to peak for two more years. All pine species are susceptible to the mountain pine beetle, which prefers pine trees between 80 and 120 years old.

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