B.C. on high alert for spruce beetle

Parts of the Omineca region are seeing the biggest outbreak since the 1980s.

The provincial government is on high alert for spruce beetle infestation, which is already a big concern in parts of the Omineca region.

More than 156,000 hectares of spruce forests in the Omineca region are currently infested by spruce beetles. Considering that only 7653 hectares of damaged forests were seen in 2013 in parts of the Omineca region, the current infestation represents the biggest spruce beetle outbreak since the 1980s.

A spruce beetle outbreak has the potential to seriously harm or kill spruce trees over large areas wherever mature spruce stands grow.

The most serious spruce beetle infestation in B.C. is occurring in the eastern valleys of the Mackenzie timber supply area (TSA) and in the northern portions of the Prince George TSA.

Steve Zika, Chief Executive Officer of Hampton Affiliates – company that owns Babine Forest Products and Decker Lake Forest Products -, said that after the devastation from the mountain pine beetle, the arrival of the spruce beetle is definitely concerning.

“It is our understanding that only minor levels of spruce beetle have been detected in the Lakes District to date,” he said. “Our foresters are on the lookout for the spruce beetle but have only identified two small patches in our operating area north of Burns Lake.”

“These small areas will be harvested next winter,” he continued. “Hopefully we will avoid another hit to our limited timber supply but we will keep a close watch on the infestation.”

Sharon Tower, executive director of the Omineca Beetle Action Coalition (OBAC), said OBAC has been regularly briefed by the province regarding the spruce beetle infestation.

Although OBAC is not expecting outbreak levels such as the ones seen with the mountain pine beetle, Tower said spruce beetle is still a big concern because it affects timber supply.

“It is quite critical to actively and aggressively stop it,” she said.

The spruce beetle attacks the inner bark of spruce trees. The adult female bores through the tree’s bark and creates an egg gallery in the sapwood where she lays her fertilized eggs. When the larvae hatch, they feed on the inner bark and continue to burrow laterally in the tree. The insect’s extended larval galleries and associated blue stain fungi eventually kill the tree.

Heather Wiebe, resource manager for the Mackenzie Forest District, has been designated the project manager to help address the spruce beetle outbreak. She has recently formed a public advisory committee made of academics, First Nations, trappers and local government officials.

The committee includes two local residents – Bill Miller, Director of Electoral Area B of the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako and Bob Murray, owner of Wild Thyme Farm on the Southside.

Wiebe explained that spruce beetle populations are endemic, which means that they are always in the forest.

“When conditions are right, the populations grow exponentially, and that’s what we have right now,” she explained. “Climatic conditions are what take spruce beetle from endemic to epidemic.”

Recent weather patterns, including warm springs, dry summers, warm winters and windstorms (resulting in more tree blowdowns) have contributed to the current increase in spruce beetle populations.

Wiebe said that although Burns Lake could potentially see an outbreak, she currently sees no indication that this will happen.

“There’s no indication that just because it’s in the Omineca area that it will necessarily go to Burns Lake; but if the conditions are right, we would expect to see population growth in Burns Lake.”

“We’re on high alert for spruce beetle and we’ll be monitoring for that in the area,” she added.

The spruce beetle is a forest pest that is native to spruce forests of western North America. According to the province, spruce beetle outbreaks occur regularly in B.C. and historically have lasted up to seven or eight years.

Wiebe said it is still uncertain what will happen within the next few months – if spruce beetle populations will start declining of if the province will enter into a full seven-year outbreak.

However, she said spruce beetle is easier to combat than the mountain pine beetle.

“Although the mountain pine beetle could move through the forest easily, spruce beetle occurs in pockets, so when they have small pockets we have different tactics to deal with them.”

One of the ways to deal with the infestation is to set a trap in which a healthy tree is cut down to mimic blowdown. This allows the beetles to populate in high amounts in those trees, which are then removed and milled quickly through a hot-milling process. This kills the live adults and the larvae that are within the log, helping to bring down the population numbers.

“If we can catch them when they are in small populations, we have a higher chance of suppressing the population.”

Wiebe added that identifying trees affected by spruce beetles can be a challenge. An infested host tree does not immediately display signs of stress or impending death until 13 to 15 months after being successfully attacked. “We’ve very vigilant right now,” said Wiebe. “The efforts that we’re making in Omineca, we’re making sure that we can apply them across the province if and when that’s necessary.”

In 2015-16, the province spent $850,000 in the Omineca area to detect timber containing active beetle infestations. This information was used to implement control methods and direct the harvesting of standing trees that had been killed by spruce beetles.  The ministry has committed another $1 million for this work in 2016-17.