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Helicopters, pheromones & smartphone apps: full steam ahead in the battle against the Spruce Beetle

The Ministry of Forests says they are using cutting edge techniques to fight the Spruce beetle and prevent a repeat of the Pine beetle epidemic.

More than 156,000 hectares of Omineca forest are already impacted, leading BC’s Chief Forester Diane Nicholls to state in a recent report that the province “has not seen a spruce beetle outbreak of this magnitude in decades.”

Spruce beetle outbreaks typically last seven years, with the Omineca currently in year three. There are also areas in the Bulkley Valley ripe for an outbreak.

A May 2016 report released to MY PG NOW through a freedom of information request states 4,680 hectares of spruce trees with live beetles were harvested during the 2016 fiscal year. Another 5,300 hectares were treated using trap trees – a felled tree, sometimes treated with pheromones, that will attract beetles before being extracted.

The woman leading the battle against the beetle is Heather Wiebe, who is also the resource manager of the Mackenzie Natural District. While the Spruce beetle is naturally occurring, she says the recent mild winters and hot summers have exacerbated things.

“The trees are stressed, and the warm winters allow the beetle to go from a two year life cycle, into one. These things are totally out of our control, so what we can do is put the best efforts forward to mitigate impact, and I think we are doing that.”

Earlier this year, the provincial government committed one million dollars to fight the Spruce Beetle, which has been spent on detection from helicopters and on the ground. Unlike the Mountain Pine Beetle, regular forest health flights carried out every fall are at too high of an altitude to effectively spot trees infected with the spruce beetle.

As a result, $250,000 is being spent on lower altitude helicopter surveys and $500,000 on ground reconnaissance.

While red needled dead trees spotted from sky indicate where the beetle has been, Wiebe says they are looking for where the beetle is now, “that’s why we go to the ground, we go into an area we know has been attacked… the experts hack into the tree and do a probe to see where the beetle are.”

The Ministry is also planning on crowd sourcing some of that work, with testing underway on a smartphone app that will allow the public to report Spruce beetle infestations once they have turned a tree’s needles and bark a recognizable red.

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Industry response

Industry is relying on the Ministry of Forests to detect the spruce beetle, who are then informing licensees of areas that need attention. Spruce trees have more shallow roots than Pine, creating a sense of urgency to get to the beetle kill before it is blows over in a windstorm and rots.

Wiebe says logging companies have been creative in preventing the further spread of the beetle during sanitation logging.

“These bugs fly when it’s 16 degrees celsius, so what a lot of these operators are doing is to shade the Spruce so it’s a cooler temperature and the bugs won’t fly.”

Log hauling and milling guidelines have also been developed to prevent the beetle from spreading, with live beetle timber getting an expedited path into the mill.

The mills themselves have also shifted gears, because many had reprofiled to deal with pine beetle kill which is much smaller diameter, “so the industry has to be very nimble, to be able to switch to spruce beetle.”

The May Ministry report indicates that they are recalling retired staff and reconnecting with ‘beetle bosses’ from the mountain pine beetle to learn from the past. A ‘Spruce Beetle Summit’ will be held in Prince George this October bringing together experts on the topic from across the content.

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