Attack of the pine beetle

An in-depth look at UAlberta's response to the devastating spread of the mountain pine beetle.

When the mountain pine beetle began blazing a path across forests in British Columbia and Alberta, nobody could have imagined the extent of the damage to come. But as the insect devastated pine forests and disrupted communities, forest industries, recreational use, watersheds, and plant and wildlife habitats, the problem became disturbingly clear. Now, as the beetle creeps into the boreal forests of the Northwest Territories and Saskatchewan, with a real concern it may reach as far east as the Maritime provinces, researchers at the University of Alberta have responded to calls from government, industry, non-profit organizations and the general public to help conserve and protect an invaluable national resource at the heart of Canadian identity.

The ecology of surprise

Janice Cooke dubs it the "ecology of surprise."

Cooke, a researcher in the Department of Biological Sciences, is director of TRIA-Net, a national collaboration of 18 scientists (including six from the University of Alberta), government forestry officers, and representatives from industry and the not-for-profit sector. The new network is the third phase of the Tria Project, which was formed in 2007 to get research results to the front lines where they can be used in the fight to control the spread of the mountain pine beetle.

One of a handful of Canadian researchers studying the beetle as it blazes a path through Canada's pine forests, Cooke, fellow University of Alberta scientists and other national partners have rapidly accepted that today's knowledge may not be enough to answer tomorrow's questions about the minuscule but destructive bug.

"We are having to adapt to what the beetle throws us, responding to the evolving developments of the outbreak and filling the knowledge gaps," she says. "Mountain pine beetle is such an enormously complex problem, it requires a fundamentally different approach to create the new knowledge that is vital to controlling the spread of the beetle."

For Lorne Babiuk, the U of A's vice-president of research-himself a world-renowned researcher in virology and vaccine development-this ever-evolving quest to understand, predict and ultimately advise government, industry and the public on how to most efficiently battle the destructive insect's spread is what drives pine beetle research at the university. "This is the type of work a research-intensive university such as the University of Alberta excels at," Babiuk says. "We are able to respond when a pressing challenge like the pine beetle arises, and we have the expertise and capacity to tackle such a challenge head-on."

Anatomy of an invasion

Mountain pine beetles are tiny, about the size of a grain of rice. The hard-shelled insects spread by flying, aided by wind currents. At its core, their ability to destroy trees is rather simple: the beetles starve the tree of nutrients, and the fungi they carry grow into the wood and disrupt water transport.

The pine trees die in three stages, which can take up to several years: green, when the trees have been infested but their needles look normal and healthy; red, after the beetles have overcome the trees' defences, and a change in needle colour indicates that the trees are dead; and grey, when the beetle has moved on and the needles have fallen away.

A native to the pine forests of western North America, at lower-density population levels, the mountain pine beetle has played an important role in lodgepole and ponderosa pine forest renewal. It's only when populations reach epidemic levels that we see large-scale mortality of forests, says Cooke.

"This is exactly what happened during the first part of the 2000s," she notes, "when conducive climatic conditions enabled mountain pine beetle population levels to soar to epidemic and even hyperepidemic levels in B.C.'s central interior."

By 2006, the mountain pine beetle had breached the Rocky Mountain barrier in a big way, flying and being carried in air currents over long distances to establish in the Peace River district of northwestern Alberta. Here, the lodgepole pine that makes up much of the historic habitat for mountain pine beetle hybridizes with jack pine, a species whose range stretches all the way to the Maritime provinces. Given this fresh territory, it only took a few years for the mountain pine beetle to spread eastward across this hybrid zone in Alberta, successfully establishing in genetically pure jack pine and knocking at the doorstep of Saskatchewan's northern forests. In the last couple of years, mountain pine beetle has even spread northward as far as the 60th parallel.

"The mountain pine beetle is the most damaging forest insect in North America," says Nadir Erbilgin, associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Forest Entomology. To date, more than 19 million hectares of Western Canadian forest land has suffered under the outbreak, a land mass the size of Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron combined. More than one billion cubic metres of mature pine has been lost, damaging forest industries, recreational use, watersheds, and plant and wildlife habitats. Thousands of jobs have been lost, and governments in British Columbia and Alberta, as well as the federal government in Ottawa, have spent well over a billion dollars in public funds trying to stem the attack and diversify economies.

Funding the fight

Recognizing the risk, in 2014 the federal government gave Cooke a $3-million Strategic Network Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to invest in TRIA-Net.

Building on the strengths of the Tria research consortium that began back in 2007, researchers have used innovative genomics strategies-the same sorts of approaches used in medicine-to uncover some of the mountain pine beetle's deepest secrets. Breakthroughs include a detailed map of the beetle's adaptation-oriented genome as well as the genome of some of the fungal symbionts that help the beetle colonize pine trees. Researchers have also sequenced the genomes of lodgepole and jack pine, whose large genomes have made the work especially challenging.

"We are collectively trying to provide the knowledge that is needed here and now to make decisions," Cooke says.

Making the leap

In 2011, it was a University of Alberta-led research team that determined the mountain pine beetle had invaded jack pine forests in Alberta, opening up the possibility for an infestation stretching east across the Prairies all the way to the Atlantic.

Working with Alberta Sustainable Resources Development and the Canadian Forest Service, a group of U of A tree biologists and geneticists discovered that as the mountain pine beetle spread eastward from central British Columbia, it successfully jumped species from its main host, the lodgepole pine, to the jack pine. Tracking the progress of the mountain pine beetle infestation across the province, they found the insect in jack pines as far east in Alberta as Slave Lake, 200 kilometres north of Edmonton.

"It was tricky, but our research team used molecular markers to conclusively show that the latest pine species to be attacked was indeed jack pine," says U of A molecular ecologist Catherine Cullingham.

Confirming the pine beetle's jump to another species was good news from a research perspective, but it also revealed a serious threat-a potential Canada-wide invasion. "Jack pine is the dominant pine species in Canada's boreal forest," Cooke says. "Its range extends east from Alberta all the way to the Maritime provinces."

The end of an endless sea of trees

Two years ago, Evan Esch, then a master's student working under John Spence in the Department of Renewable Resources, discovered that the beetle, in addition to attacking North America's lodgepole and jack pines, was threatening to wipe out the remaining population of Alberta's whitebark pine-a tree endangered across North America.

His research showed that climate change was causing temperatures to rise in the cold mountain elevations where the whitebark pine grow, creating ripe conditions for the destructive beetle to spread.

Erbilgin is building on Esch's work, looking at the susceptibility of whitebark pine to mountain pine beetles and warming climate in western North America, including Alberta. The goal is to evaluate whether the defences of whitebark pine are compromised due to increasing global warming.

The tree species had already been decimated by white pine blister rust, a fungal infection carried from Europe 100 years ago, making for what Esch describes as a "devastating one-two punch."

"There are a small number of trees that have resistance to the fungal disease, but we are concerned that the mountain pine beetle will kill them off. Areas that were historically climatically unfavourable to the beetle are becoming better for them, even at higher elevations and northern latitudes in Alberta."

The whitebark pine grows in high elevations along the Rocky Mountains through to the coastal ranges in western North America, including Alberta, British Columbia, Montana, Idaho, Washington and California. The tree can live up to 1,000 years. It provides nutritious seeds crucial to the diet of birds, black bears and grizzly bears, and is often the last species at the treeline, where it regulates snow melt and stabilizes shallow subalpine soils in the mountains.

Esch studied the life history traits of the mountain pine beetle in whitebark pines, exploring the question of how well the insect reproduces in this type of pine. "Even though the tree isn't as well suited to the beetle here because of Alberta's cooler climate, the insect is still capable of killing whitebark pines and will still produce large broods in the oldest, most developed of these trees," Esch says.

"In both the short and long term, it means the mountain pine beetle will kill more of these trees."

Whitebark pine, made more vulnerable than lodgepole pine due to white pine blister rust, has consequently been listed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

"I think of the Canadian wilderness as an endless sea of trees," Esch says. "The notion that this rugged, remote tree could go extinct in my lifetime is startling."

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Fighting back

As the beetle spreads both north and east from its current vanguard in northern Alberta, scientists at the U of A are focusing on two of the newest questions posed by the insect: how easily it can keep spreading, and how far it can go.

In her lab, Cooke focuses on the beetle's spread eastward into jack pine of the boreal forest and on its recent spread into the Northwest Territories-distressing new feeding ground. "These forests have not been considered part of the mountain pine beetle's native range, and to our knowledge have not sustained an outbreak in recent history. This raises a lot of questions about how easily mountain pine beetle can spread and become established in these new regions, perpetuating the outbreak," says Cooke.

"They are there now, and while they aren't thriving in great numbers, if it takes fewer beetles to kill a tree, they don't need large populations to persist and spread."

Northern forests, though less commercially important, are vital to First Nations communities for cultural and recreational purposes, shelter fragile ecosystems and are important for survival of species such as caribou.

As an expert in tree genomics, Cooke will, in 2015, start testing row upon row of tender lodgepole and jack pine seedlings in her lab to discover whether northern and southern pine trees react differently to the fungus carried by the beetle.

Both Cooke and Erbilgin are focused on how lodgepole and jack pine defences differ, genetically and chemically. They are examining how stressors like drought affect pine defences and whether a shorter growing season for northern trees makes them more susceptible to the beetle. Together with TRIA-Net researchers David Coltman and Cullingham, Cooke is investigating how the genetic makeup of pine trees might affect their vulnerability to the insect. The trio's work has already revealed different genetic groupings within the geographic ranges of lodgepole and jack pines.

A related question, posed by preliminary findings from other research groups, suggests that it takes fewer beetles to overcome the defences of jack pine compared with lodgepole pine. That dynamic is being explored by TRIA-Net researchers, including Erbilgin.

"How are those differences meaningful to the beetle? This will give us an idea of how to predict risk, both short- and long-term, as the beetle spreads," Cooke says.

The resulting predictive models are being developed by TRIA-Net colleague Mark Lewis, who won Canada's top mathematics prize in 2011 for his models of animal movement and the spread of invasive species.

Predicting the spread: A beetle flight recorder

Meanwhile, U of A biologist Maya Evenden is exploring the beetle's flight capacity, a scantily researched area to date. As with Cooke's work, her research program is evolving to keep in step with the insect's progress.

"There was a real niche for that area of research," says Evenden. Although work has been done with bark beetles on flight capacity, the mountain pine beetle is new territory.

"The U of A stands alone in that."

Evenden's lab in the Department of Biological Sciences houses 25 homemade gadgets called flight mills. Tethered to fine wires connected to the small machines, the beetles fly in circles around the mills (which vaguely resemble maypoles), while their flight time, speed and distance are recorded on a computer.

Flight is crucial to the beetle's spread; the females scout host trees and use pheromones-airborne chemical compounds that trigger a social response among individuals of the same species-to call in the rest of the swarm to feed.

"We want to find out what aspects influence how well they fly, so that we can make spread models more realistic," Evenden says. As the insect moves east across Alberta towards Saskatchewan, more accurate predictor models are important.

"A good model can help us predict when the mountain pine beetle will be somewhere, which helps managers better implement their containment plans. If we wait until we find mass-attacked trees, we will be behind the eight-ball."

To date, Evenden's lab has discovered that bigger beetles fly better and have more fat, and that the beetles which fly the farthest emerge from the host trees first. Also being explored are the roles metabolites like proteins, sugars and lipids play in affecting the beetle's flight, and the potential cost to dispersal capacity from carrying mites during flight.

Working with fellow U of A scientists and TRIA-Net member Felix Sperling and Coltman, Evenden will also identify beetle genes associated with dispersal capacity.

Taking the pheromone bait

U of A researchers are also closing in on developing an effective bait to get ahead of the destructive spread of the beetle.

Nadir Erbilgin has been investigating pheromones emitted by the pest in North America's lodgepole and jack pine forests.

"Pheromones are essential for the mountain pine beetle to be able to spread and thrive, so we wanted to explore how we might use that to stop them," Erbilgin says. The chemical compounds play a key role in the insect's ability to find a mate and to overcome tree defences.

Erbilgin's research focuses on developing a bait that can be potentially used to monitor beetle activity specifically in jack pine forests.

"Right now we don't know how efficient currently available commercial baits will be in catching beetles in jack pine forest, as they were developed to catch the beetle in lodgepole pine forests," Erbilgin says. Because the trees differ in their chemistry relating to beetle attraction and colonization, differences in beetle responses are to be expected, he adds.

Erbilgin and his team, which includes Evenden and several U of A graduate students, spent the summers of 2011 and 2012 testing the efficiency of a pheromone bait "that is showing promise," he says. The bait, tested in Grande Prairie lodgepole forests, works by attracting the beetles to traps. Traps with high numbers of beetle catches could indicate the levels of beetle population at a particular site.

The eventual goal is to develop a bait for use in a provincial "trap tree" program, in which visual and chemical cues would combine to attract high numbers of beetles. Trap trees are used to concentrate and contain the local beetle population on certain trees. The infested trees are then used to assess the beetle population level and removed, along with the beetles.

Erbilgin says the team's field trials will continue in the summer of 2014, and the hope is to have an effective product developed for use within the next few years.

Alumni answering the call

Partnerships such as TRIA-Net provide the means for scientists like Cooke to collaborate and tackle the pine beetle problem from every angle, but she can also bounce around ideas much closer to home-at home, in fact. Cooke's husband, Barry, is a federal research scientist working to understand why forest insects like the pine beetle and other potentially dangerous bugs go through boom-and-bust population explosions.

A research scientist with the Northern Forestry Centre, part of Natural Resources Canada, Barry is a U of A alumnus with a PhD in ecology and a background in forestry and entomology. He started working on the spatial dynamics of the mountain pine beetle in 2005, the summer before the insects exploded across the Rockies and into Alberta.

"When that happened, Janice and I knew that this was a historic event," he says, and the two immediately began working toward understanding what was happening.

Another U of A alum guiding Alberta's response to the pine beetle is Erica Samis, manager of forest health and adaptation with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.

With a degree in environmental and conservation sciences, Samis was a regional forestry health officer in Hinton in 2006 when the pine beetle invaded Alberta. Ever since, the insect has been a major focus of her work. Samis was responsible for drafting a comprehensive provincial pine beetle management program, developing strategies to maintain forest health.

"It was a really exciting program to be involved in setting up, expanding it, making folks more aware of the impacts forest pests have on reduced growth of trees and the potential for increased mortality," Samis says.

Silver lining in blue wood

Design students Jillian Richards and Maxwell Hurd show off three of the chairs they created using beetle-killed pine.

One of the most visible effects of the beetle's deadly run across Western Canada has been swaths of dead grey forest scarring the landscape.

But thanks to the imagination of some University of Alberta design students, the blue-tinged wood left in the beetle's wake is taking an elegant form, bringing a bit of beauty to an otherwise bleak environmental issue.

As an extracurricular project this year, Maxwell Hurd, Jillian Richards and fellow members of the Student Design Association in the U of A's Department of Art and Design combined wood damaged by the mountain pine beetle with tubular steel to craft a series of eight ultra-cool chairs, all bearing the soft blue-grey staining left behind by the fungus the beetle carries into trees it infests.

The students exhibited their creations at the Interior Design Show in Toronto, where their work caught the eye of giants Umbra and Ikea, and earned mention on The chairs were also featured in an Edmonton art exhibit and two were displayed in a local design studio.

"It was a great way to have a conversation about what we were doing and people seemed interested," says Hurd, who graduates next fall from the Bachelor of Design program. "I think it was understood that if we are using wood that would have otherwise been disregarded, that's a good thing.

"It shows what is possible with this wood."

"We wanted to take it beyond the usual school project, to have a bigger meaning to a current issue. We wanted to find an issue that was close to home and was relative to design with regard to Western Canada," says Richards, who graduated in June with her design degree.

Through one of their furniture design classes, the students learned that beetle-killed wood was local and abundant. To better understand the issue of mountain pine beetle infestation, the students consulted with Erbilgin. Steeped in research about the beetle, Erbilgin "provided a lot of insight on the severity of the situation and validated our assumptions that it was an issue we should address through our work," Hurd says.

The beetle-killed wood was the perfect raw material to mesh with a higher purpose of design, Hurd says.

"In the design program, the idea is to have a reason for everything you do. We don't want to just design something pretty, but with purpose. There is more to it than elegance or comfort.The thinking designer has an awareness of sustainability and of societal and political implications of design."

Beyond the beetle

The devastating effects of the mountain pine beetle are obvious. But what isn't clear is what will happen after the destructive insect moves on. What kind of forest will grow in its wake?

To help answer that question, U of A forestry professors Uldis Silins and Ellen Macdonald from the Department of Renewable Resources have been looking to the future, well past the invasion of mountain pine beetle, to a long-term goal of forest recovery, resilience and resistance.

"There is no doubt that we'll have to make management choices and be thoughtful of what kind of forests we will develop," says Silins.

As part of an overall study focused on what effect the beetle invasion has on forest hydrology and vegetation, Silins and Macdonald have been busy in the forests of west-central Alberta. Though some understanding has been gained from pine regeneration in British Columbia, Alberta's lodgepole pine forests are different in important ways, and further research has been required.

Since 2008, Silins and Macdonald have been simulating mountain pine beetle kill in selected stands of lodgepole, tracking the stages of the trees' decline and death from green to red to grey. With funding from the Foothills Research Institute, they are studying how beetle attack and the regrowth of vegetation afterwards changes the cycling of water in pine forests as the dead trees enter the grey attack stage, when they lose their needles and are no longer able to capture rain or snowfall.

"Once the needles fall off, more precipitation reaches the ground," says Silins. The loss of trees also means they aren't consuming the water, which adds to the problem. That excess water soaks into the ground and may help vegetation regrow, but could also increase the flow of rivers and streams, draining beetle-affected forests.

Believing that many of the lodgepole pine sites will need assistance once the mountain pine beetle moves on, Silins and Macdonald, along with Erbilgin, professor of silviculture Victor Lieffers, professor of fire science Mike Flannigan, and members of the Forest Resource Improvement Association of Alberta, are looking at the best way to facilitate lodgepole pine regeneration in beetle-killed stands. Though fire is likely the best treatment, prescribed burns can be difficult and uncertain. The researchers would like to use some innovative approaches, such as mechanical and partial harvesting treatments, to help prepare seedbeds for natural regeneration.

Through all of this, the goal is to develop forests that are better suited to handle whatever nature-and humans-throw at them. "We have to develop resilient forests that are resistant to fires, drought and insect attacks," Silins suggests.

Getting ahead of the 'ecology of surprise'

Cooke, Erbilgin, Evenden and their U of A colleagues in TRIA-Net hope their collective work takes away some of the element of surprise posed by the mountain pine beetle, to help those battling it on the front lines.

"Our goal is to keep the toolkit dynamic for forestry conservation managers," Cooke says. "Forest managers have an important mandate to control mountain pine beetle both for this and future outbreaks, and we are there to help them. Ultimately we want to develop new mathematical models and other tools that can improve the decision-making process."

Alberta now has the largest management program in Canada, and Samis's team has shared its knowledge with colleagues looking to develop similar practices in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and Ontario. Lessons learned in B.C. have guided much of the response.

"The University of Alberta can lead the way in finding answers that will take us past the immediate issue of mountain pine beetle infestation, to the equally important question of how we handle the consequences."-Uldis Silins

"We have to be very aggressive with the mountain pine beetle in order to be effective. One of the biggest things B.C. told us was that we needed to recognize up front that not all of the areas would be successfully treated. We had to prioritize based on values of risk and potential spread," she says.

The majority of Alberta's pine beetle control lies along a leading edge spanning much of central and west-central Alberta, from Grande Prairie to Hinton, Edson, Whitecourt and Slave Lake and down the eastern slopes of the Rockies. Placing a priority on specifically targeted areas appears to be working.

"We've had a lot of success with our program over the last several years. We are actively managing the mountain pine beetle, where the numbers are either decreasing or holding in check. Everybody is looking to Alberta."

Both Silins and Babiuk believe the U of A plays a pivotal role in shaping a landscape for the future.

"The University of Alberta can lead the way in finding answers that will take us past the immediate issue of mountain pine beetle infestation, to the equally important question of how we handle the consequences," Silins says.

"From its beginnings, the University of Alberta was tasked with a commitment to the public good," Babiuk says. "In one way or another-socially, economically, culturally or environmentally-the pine beetle challenge affects us all. The work being done by our faculty, students and alumni-alongside fellow researchers, government and industry-shows that we are all part of the solution."

UPDATE: Reports from the Northwest Territories highlight the ever-changing dynamic of the outbreak. Based on this recent information, TRIA-Net director Janice Cooke reports, "Forest fires have since destroyed the stands in the Northwest Territories in which the attacked trees had been identified. Aerial surveys conducted in July of this year in partnership with the Canadian Forest Service did not reveal any further attacked trees. However, the survey would not have picked up any trees that would have been attacked this year, if there are any. Mountain pine beetle still lurks in northern forests in B.C. and Alberta, and could once again cross the 60th parallel, given that it has happened before."