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Alberta budget adds $5M to fight mountain pine beetle; Edmonton on alert

Alberta increasing funding for fight against mountain pine beetle
WATCH ABOVE: The province is upping the amount it spends to fight back against the mountain pine beetle. The tiny insect is wreaking havoc on Alberta forests. As Julia Wong reports, there are calls for the federal government to step in.

Alberta is increasing what it spends to fight the mountain pine beetle in the province’s forests.

Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen says the amount is going up by $5 million to a total of $30 million, an increase that was part of an election campaign promise.

READ MORE: Mountain pine beetle epidemic sparks wildfire concerns in Jasper

He says the money is to be spent on monitoring beetle infestations, as well as on early attack programs.

“It’s regional right now,” Dreeshen said.

“The western part of the province is severely hit. I don’t know if you’ve been to Jasper but there’s massive swaths of dead standing trees.

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“It’s a very serious issue. There’s $11 billion of forest that’s actually susceptible to this and it’s something that we have to be able to get in front of.”

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Mountain Pine Beetle devastating Jasper forests
Mountain Pine Beetle devastating Jasper forests

READ MORE: Hundreds of hectares of trees being removed from Jasper area

Paul Whittaker of the Alberta Forest Products Association says the Hinton area continues to be most threatened after a large flight of the beetles from Jasper National Park.

“We saw the (beetle) numbers explode in the last few years in the Hinton area. It was at least 100-times growth. Those (town) councils are very much concerned,” he said.

“The community downside of not fighting the beetle is the huge fire risk associated with those communities that are surrounded by increasingly dead pine trees.”

How Alberta’s cold weather helps in the fight against mountain pine beetles
How Alberta’s cold weather helps in the fight against mountain pine beetles

Whittaker says last year’s cold winter was tough on the tiny insects. He says that gives foresters a chance to try to reduce their overall numbers.

“If we don’t stop the spread of the pine beetle here in Alberta, we don’t stop it from decimating forests in the rest of Canada,” Whittaker said.

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“If we don’t stop it here, it goes all the way to Newfoundland. The government of Alberta understands this. The government of Saskatchewan clearly understands this because the government of Saskatchewan is sending money to the government of Alberta to help this fight.”

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READ MORE: Mountain pine beetle larvae may be reduced by 90% due to Alberta’s cold winter

Dreeshen said the federal government responded “negatively” to Alberta’s request for help in the past.

“There has been not a penny from the federal government,” he said.

“We’re very hopeful that the new government in Ottawa will take this seriously. Because to date, they have not taken it seriously.”

In an email to Global News, the federal government said it conducts world-class research on the mountain pine beetle as it moves east. It said Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) has invested about $11.7 million in beetle-related research in Alberta and has five full-time researchers in the province — one focused on Jasper National Park.

“NRCan scientific personnel continue to assist the province of Alberta in scientific monitoring and research, including a recently completed ‘risk assessment of the threat of Mountain Pine Beetle to Canada’s boreal and eastern pine forests,’ published by the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers in June 2019,” NRCan spokesperson Audrey Champagne wrote.

“Our government invests $20 million annually in scientific research to help address the risks posed to our forests by forest pests, including mountain pine beetle.”

While Ottawa outlined its contributions to research and monitoring, it didn’t answer questions about whether any money was specifically earmarked to help fight the mountain pine beetle.

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READ MORE: Canadian Chamber of Commerce looking for federal funding to stop mountain pine beetle

Elsewhere in the province, the beetles have had their eastward march stopped. Recent surveys didn’t find any past Lac la Biche, said Erica Samis of Alberta Environment. They have been found in Edmonton’s urban forest.

Samis said Edmontonians should start educating themselves on the signs and effects of the mountain pine beetle and keep a lookout.

“It would be a great idea for folks to become familiar with what it looks like when your tree is attacked by mountain pine beetle so they can be aware,” she said.

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The first sign that a tree is being attacked is it will create “pitch tubes” — the tree is still green but it looks like it has measles — to fight back against the beetle. Then, in the spring, the tree will die and turn red.  Anyone who notices a tree exhibiting these symptoms should contact their municipal parks and recreation department.

Alberta calls on Ottawa to do more to battle the mountain pine beetle
Alberta calls on Ottawa to do more to battle the mountain pine beetle

However, the City of Edmonton’s resident bug expert, Mike Jenkins, told Global News the city has not found any trees killed by mountain pine beetles in Alberta’s capital to date.

“We’ve only found the beetles in baited traps. So no dead trees, and not even trees with pitch blobs or other signs of beetle attack,” the pest management coordinator said.

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“We’ve been finding occasional small numbers of beetles, they’re showing up.

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“Some of them are successful getting through in some of the pine trees but we’re not seeing those mass attacks, they’re not overwhelming the defenses of the trees. We’re not seeing trees dying from the attacks,” Jenkins said.

But, if strong winds carried a large group of beetles, a mass attack could be possible in Edmonton.

“That could potentially happen here if there were a large enough population that were carried by the wind, carried a huge number of beetles into this area, we could see that sort of mass attack on trees in the Edmonton area as well.”

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Ken Willis, the head of horticulture at the U of A Botanic Garden, said pine beetles were found in the garden in July 2018.

“We had some adults we believe came from the Jasper region. Environmental conditions, temperature and wind conditions were conducive that they left the Jasper area and made it as far as the garden,” he said.

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Willis said the all the pine beetles were female so there was no infestation. There has been no activity this year.

He’s concerned, however, that the beetles made it to the gardens.

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“We have several pine trees here… in our collection that are important specimens for the work we do here so we always worry about these trees [that] are now at risk and going forward, we try to work out a mitigation plan on what we’re going to do in the future,” Willis said.

— With files from Canadian Press