John Pousette (L), Provincial Park Beetle Coordinator from the Office of the Chief Forester Division; and Ken White (R), Entomologist with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development give a presentation on beetle outbreaks to the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako on Sept. 5. (Blair McBride photo)

Spruce beetles a growing concern, government says

Many forest stands in parts of the Bulkley-Nechako region are vulnerable to spruce beetle attacks, as government officials told a Regional District board of directors meeting on Sept. 5.

John Pousette, Provincial Park Beetle Coordinator with the Office of the Chief Forester Division; and Ken White, an Entomologist with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) updated the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako with the situation on spruce beetles.

“Spruce beetle infestation peaked in 2017 in the Omineca region. It hasn’t peaked in the Skeena region. But the Skeena region is larger than Omineca,” said White.

Infestations in the Omineca exploded from 7,653 hectares in 2013 to more than 217,251 in 2014, then fluctuated until 2017 when it peaked at 341,000 ha, according to FLNRORD data in the officials’ presentation. More than 250,000 hectares of that is in the Prince George Natural Resource District. The infestation for Omineca fell to 242,000 ha last year.

READ MORE: Omineca Spruce Beetle Outbreak

The magnitude of infestation for the Skeena region is much smaller, but has been growing steadily for the past six years. In 2013 it was at 90 ha and has risen each year until it reached 27,249 ha in 2018.

The Skeena region begins just west of Endako and stretches to the coast and north to the Yukon border. Omineca runs east to Alberta and north to the area near Muncho Lake.

As the officials explained, mountain pine beetles are still in the area but their numbers are much lower than they were years before.

Of current concern are spruce beetles and western balsam bark beetles.

The balsam critters are “found in higher elevation balsam stands of sub-alpine fir. Their attacks are widely spaced and only 5-10 per cent of a stand gets attacked and it’s distributed throughout a stand so it’s more difficult to manage that beetle.”

Weather patterns over the last few decades are one clue as to why spruce beetles are becoming a growing threat.

The Omineca region has become drier, as Pousette pointed out, with annual precipitation dropping by about 21 per cent between 1971 and 2016. Another factor is temperature.

“The minimum temperature in the winter has gone up about 7 degrees. That’s the coldest temperature we would get in the winter and what would normally kill beetles. It’s the same for [the] Prince George [region]. We’ve got a minimum temperature in the winter going off by about 9 degrees. So instead of -40C we would get -31 C temperatures.”

Survey research has found that spruce beetle attacks have a scattered pattern in diverse stands comprising spruce and balsam, unlike the wave-style attacks of mountain pine beetle.

Another difference between spruce beetle attacks and those of their pine-focussed cousins is that spruce stands tend to have trees of varying ages and when larger spruce trees are attacked, the younger ones are left to keep growing.

RELATED: Current spruce beetle outbreak in Omineca region not unusual

The beetle coordinator also laid out how the government is trying to act on the outbreaks.

Genomic research efforts are focussing on the possibility of developing pesticides or chemicals that would attack only spruce beetles.

“We’re also looking at having all licensees submit hauling and storage guidelines so that they’re not hauling those spruce-beetle infested logs to an area that doesn’t have infestations. There are a bunch of guidelines around what time they can haul, in what temperatures, how do they store those logs in storage yards, etc.”

The budget for activities to combat beetle infestations in northern British Columbia, or what the officials called “forest health spending” is $2.01 million for 2019. That work includes aerial and ground surveys, and fall and burn activities for mountain pine beetle.

Following the officials’ presentation, Brad Layton, Mayor of Telkwa criticized the budget allocation as “atrocious.”

“I ran a federal mountain pine beetle program in the Peace region for two years and I had $26 million to spend in the Peace alone when we were trying to stop the pine beetle from going to the next province over. Two million dollars is not enough. I hope more resources are allocated,” Layton said.

Pousette acknowledged the concerns over the budget, and added that he would appreciate any efforts to increase the funding.

“If we see this thing spread we’re going to need federal funding. We haven’t even talked about federal funding yet. We have a provincial amount that’s set for the whole program. I think it’s about $6.4 million for the whole program for the entire province and then that’s divided up,” he said.

Layton also took aim at what he said was a slower response to beetle outbreaks compared to in the past.

In response, White said the approach towards the spruce beetle epidemic has taken into account more considerations than just timber values.

“That’s been the strong message that has come from the chief forester. She has been saying that other values are very, very important in dealing with the spruce beetle epidemic. Things have changed. There seems to be more of an emphasis on other values like wildlife values and First Nations. [And] it’s not as easy to action some of these sites as it was before. With the Omineca there have been issues with access. It’s been trickier to deal with this infestation than it was previously.”

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