In the early 1990s the mountain pine beetle outbreak began in British Columbia, wiping out more than half of the province’s commercial pine trees. The insect has continued its destructive advance eastward, breaching the Rocky Mountains into Alberta and now threatening the boreal forest in Saskatchewan and beyond.
Sustained by a string of winters that weren’t cold enough to effectively reduce its numbers, the small, wood-boring insect — about the size of a grain of rice — has laid waste to approximately 20 million hectares of mainly lodgepole pines in B.C. and Alberta.
To counter the challenges faced by forest ecosystems and industries amid this climate change-fuelled infestation, a group of Carleton University researchers are playing leading roles in a $6.4 million project with a pair of intertwined goals.
Carleton biologist Catherine Cullingham and her scientific collaborators — including Janice Cooke at the University of Alberta — are doing field and lab work to learn why some lodgepole pine populations have genetic resilience to the beetle and how forest managers and policy makers in government and industry can mitigate the risks faced by jack pine and other species.
At the same time, Stephan Schott from Carleton’s School of Public Policy and Administration, alongside Vivian Nguyen from the university’s Institute of Environmental and Interdisciplinary Science, is engaging with communities from Canada’s three westernmost provinces. They’re helping municipal officials, Indigenous groups, the forestry sector, conservation associations, hunters, fishers, hikers and others learn about what responses worked (or did not work) in B.C. and how people can reduce the impacts of the outbreak in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Regardless of their particular perspectives, the researchers are concerned not only about timber value, but also tourism and the ecological and cultural importance of Canada’s forests.
“You can’t just focus on resilient trees,” says Schott, one of more than a dozen Carleton faculty members and graduate students contributing to the project. “Human beings are part of the ecosystem, and we need resilient communities too.”
Understanding Mountain Pine Beetle Genetics
A tremendous leap forward in genome sequencing underpins Cullingham’s part of this project, allowing her to develop a deeper understanding of both mountain pine beetle and tree genetics.
She’s hoping to discover why one tree can withstand the pest while another does not, looking both within one species and by comparing different species, and to learn about how the beetles are adapting to a changing climate.
“We’re trying to find the genetic variants that living trees have and dead trees don’t,” Cullingham explains.
“We’re also generating genomic data for beetles that died during an early cold snap in Alberta last fall to try to figure out what genes might be associated with whether or not a beetle is able to deal with cold temperatures.”
Last December, Cullingham participated in a national forest pest management forum in Ottawa, continuing her efforts to ensure that decision makers are equipped with the latest research.
“The more info they have, the better choices they can make,” she says. “We’re at a critical point and we don’t know what will happen next.”
Learning from the Mountain Pine Beetle Outbreak
Schott and his team, meanwhile, have been holding workshops in Quesnel and Prince George, B.C., and are preparing for similar sessions in Slave Lake, Alta., and Meadow Lake, Sask.
These locations were chosen because there is significant Indigenous involvement in forestry along this northern corridor — and because, from west to east, the communities are at different stages of the outbreak.
“In B.C., we want to see how forestry practices and management changed after the beetle came through,” says Schott, citing Quesnel’s innovative Forestry Initiatives Program as an example of how the city and its partners are working to prevent wildfires, restore landscapes and diversify the local forest products manufacturing sector.
“B.C. had fairly reactive policies and may have gone too far in terms of salvage logging. They basically cleared large tracts of forest, trying to cash in and sell wood. There could be better risk assessment frameworks. In Saskatchewan, they’re trying to be anticipatory, to learn from B.C. and Alberta.”
Better planning and policy coordination could encourage more value-added forestry manufacturing and other uses and benefits of forests — a diverse approach that would also inform pre- and post-beetle cutting and replanting practices.
“This is about the sustainability of forests and the livelihoods of people and communities,” says Schott. “We need a participatory decision-making model that prioritizes multiple objectives, not just timber value. We can use scientific information to control the spread or at least adapt appropriately to it. This is how communities can better plan for the future.”