Mobile app helps fight mountain pine beetle

December 1, 2016

By: The Fitzhugh

Want to help fight the spread of the mountain pine beetle, but aren’t sure where to start? Well, there’s an app for that.

At the end of October, fRI Research launched a free smartphone application as a quick and easy way for people to report the presence of mountain pine beetle throughout the region.

Once downloaded, the program is simple to use: take a picture of what you believe is an infected tree and upload it to the app’s databank.

Each submission requires a photo showing the infected tree and its pitch tubes (a pitch tube is the tree’s response to a burrowing beetle and usually resembles gooey sap coming out of the tree). The user must also estimate how many pitch tubes are on the tree, estimate how many trees are infected in the area and can submit additional notes about their observations.

“We kept it as simple as possible, just collecting the bare minimum to monitor where the infestation is and how severe it is,” said Ben Williamson, a science communications specialist with fRI Research.

“Everybody has a smartphone these days and there are tons of people who get out there and enjoy the outdoors and can get involved with the data collection and really make a difference.”

After the data has been uploaded, fRI Research employees manually sort through the submitted photos and notes, and add the information to a growing database of where each infected tree was spotted.

“As long as we aren’t getting thousands of photos then it’s pretty easy to sort through pictures and correctly identify where the mountain pine beetle was,” said Williamson.

In addition to uploading information, the app also provides users with information about the beetle and its preferred habitat—the lodgepole pine tree.

The app was launched about a week after stakeholders and representatives from all three levels of government gathered at the Hinton Centre for an open house, discussing the effects of mountain pine beetle throughout the region.

“We know it’s a problem in Hinton and we know it’s a problem in Jasper National Park, so the mayor of Hinton, who has been concerned about the issue for a long time, came to us to see if there was anything we could do to help,” Williamson said. “He suggested we do something like our grizzly bear scat app, so we quickly came up with this app.”

In 2014, fRI Research launched its grizzly bear scat app as a non-invasive way to monitor grizzly bear species in the region. Williamson said the app was successful and is still used today.

“The pine beetle app is basically a re-skinned version of that app. It just makes sense to use technology to be more effective in our conservation research,” Williamson said. “We’re a small organization with a tight budget, but we want to have the maximum impact, and using cellphone apps with the public seems to work fairly well.”

So far, Williamson said a few dozen people have downloaded the mountain pine beetle app. However, what will be done with the data remains to be seen.

“We’re not pigeonholing the data for any specific project. It’s just general information that could be used to inform any management plan—whether that’s for Parks Canada, the Government of Alberta or local forestry companies to decide where they’re going to harvest to try to avoid losses from the pine beetle,” Williamson said.

“I think this information could work in Jasper National Park as well. I would imagine any information they could get on the location and severity of different locations in the park would be useful for whatever plans they develop.”

While Parks Canada wouldn’t say if it would use data collected from the app, Steve Young, a communications officer with Parks, wrote that the organization works in collaboration with the province of Alberta, the Canadian Forest Service, municipal governments as well as other stakeholders.

“This is a regional challenge that has migrated across the Rocky Mountains, in British Columbia and Alberta, and Jasper National Park is just one of many jurisdictions impacted by it,” Young wrote.

“This partnership dates back over a decade when several prescribed fires were initiated to reduce mountain pine beetle habitat in Jasper National Park and the other mountain national parks.”

Parks Canada released its mountain pine beetle management plan for Jasper National Park back in August.

The 23-page plan includes several strategies to slow the eastward spread of the beetle, including using prescribed burns, cutting down individual/multiple trees and using harvesting equipment to eliminate larger patches of infected forest.

The publication of the policy came nearly five months after Parks Canada released a draft strategy of its plan, which indicated the beetle colonized approximately 21,500 hectares of forest in Jasper National Park in 2015, more than three times the amount than in 2014.

fRI Research’s mountain pine beetle app can be found at both the iOS app store and the Android play store.

By: The Fitzhugh

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