Ryan Zapisocki swings a leg over his skidoo, fires up the engine and rides into the forest. The snow is melting and a warm breeze is blowing through the pines, causing them to sway slowly against each other. Some needles on the trees are tinged red, others, deep auburn. He slows as he arrives at his destination: a gathering of trees marked with ribbons. These are the ones that will be cut and burned come this February.
“There are heavier infestations in the west near Jasper,” he says, leaning forward in his chair and pointing to a map on the wall. “The pine beetles in this region are coming from that direction.”
Zapisocki is a quality inspector who started checking surveyed areas last week. He and a crew of four have been contracted by Alberta Parks and Environment to help deal with the Mountain Pine Beetle.
Different contractors will be arriving from now until March, surveying infected areas, checking the areas and performing cut and burns to mitigate the pine beetle infestation.
Laurier Lefebvre, crew supervisor, says one day per year the mountain pine beetle takes flight, swarming to new trees between the warm months of July and September.
Zapisocki says he’s only witnessed a swarm once in his 15 years working with the mountain pine beetle. He said he didn’t just see it; he ended up right in the middle of it.
“It’s gross,” he laughs. “They cover you, it’s a swarm. They’re small, but they’re so many and you’re breathing them in, they’re stuck to your clothing.”
Lefebvre says that at this moment pine beetle eggs have already hatched and larvae are growing until they reach adulthood — less than one centimetre in length. While small in size, the damage is catastrophic.
“It’s going to get pretty bad in the west if the infestation isn’t dealt with,” he explains.
The mountain pine beetle first became an issue in the 1990’s in British Columbia.
Fifteen years later the insect has rampaged through British Columbia and left carnage in Jasper National Park. The beetle has been found in areas as far as Whitecourt.
Mayor Rob Mackin says, “You’re never going to necessarily stop and eradicate the pine beetle, but there’s a lot of things that can be done to help mitigate the pine beetle.”
He adds that it’s going to be a tough year for Jasper’s tourism sector if they don’t get the infestation under control. So far Parks Canada has been slow to react— something that’s going to cost them in the near future.
“If you drive west of Jasper now, up the Miette Valley towards Mount Robson, Yellowhead Lake area, it’s brutal. When you take that 75 per cent of the forest is pine and the majority of that is infected, Jasper is going to look completely different in the next five years.” says Mackin.
Mackin isn’t the only one who has been concerned about the region. Bruce Alexander, woodlands manager for Hinton and Edson, says, “Honestly, if the appropriate resources and funding levels are not granted immediately to Jasper National Park to deal with the rapidly expanding mountain pine beetle population, then pine forests on the east slopes surrounding Hinton, Edson, Grande Cache and Nordegg are in serious trouble.”
The mayor has been increasing pressure on Parks Canada to deal with the infestation, which has now spread to areas surrounding Hinton.
“We’re now starting to see large numbers of pine beetle infestation in our working forests around Hinton, as well as in the area that’s between Jasper National Park and West Fraser forest management area.”
Mackin says these areas include Rock Park and William A. Switzer Park.
West Fraser has been dealing with the infestation by harvesting as much pine as they can, to eliminate areas for the pest to reproduce and spread.
The mountain pine beetle can’t survive in climates that consistently sit below minus 40 degrees Celsius. The region would have to reach below minus 40 for a full week to deal with the infestation, which isn’t looking promising.
Instead, cut and burns and winter burns have been prescribed. Zapisocki and Lefebvre, along with two others on the team, are in charge of double-checking surveyed areas before burning takes place. If they see a tree that hasn’t been marked properly, they put a yellow ribbon around the trunk. This notifies the surveyors that it needs a re-evaluation.
“We’re checking as far west as Rock Lake,” Zapisocki says. “We won’t be doing anything inside the park boundaries. They have a different management policy. Parks Canada has to deal with that.”
He says cutting and burning has been an effective way to deal with the infestation.
In July an aerial view of the region took place with members of the county, including Mackin.
The Yellowhead County is “well aware of the issue.” Mackin says the province has been more than supportive in dealing with the infestation, in helping with identifying areas of infection and tackling the issue head-on. Parks Canada hasn’t been as proactive.
“They have a plan, but they’re hoping that it gets funding in Ottawa,” he explains. This waiting process is slowing down any chance of dealing with the mountain pine beetle.
“We’re trying to work with Parks Canada to understand what their plans are. I want to support them as much as possible to get the funding needed to take action in the park,” Mackin explains.
Mackin fears that if the infestation isn’t dealt with soon, more flights will take place in Hinton’s forestry areas, which will negatively affect industry as well as jobs and recreation.
“Every year that we wait, every month that we wait, it’s getting worse,” he says.