Jasper National Park's Pines Turning Red in the Wake of Mountain Pine Beetle

Mountain pine beetle outbreak has killed thousands of trees in the Park, and without immediate control measures will threaten more communities.

Jennifer Pascoe - 27 November 2018

This story was updated on November 27, 2018. It was originally published on November 17, 2017.

It's been a year since Canadians sounded a major alarm on the streak of red staining the forests of Jasper National Park. A year since Janice Cooke, associate professor at the University of Alberta, warned us to "take a look at these forests, because in five years, they're not going to look like that."

If, like many Albertans, you have visited Jasper National Park recently, you've likely seen the growing numbers of trees with red nettles. In the pine trees that make up these forests, red means dead. The killer? The mountain pine beetle.

The small clusters of red trees have grown into a swathe of destruction-one that places Alberta on the frontline of a battle to contain a mountain pine beetle epidemic threatening the forests that Canadians know and love. Now, the Government of Alberta is calling on resources across Canada to combat the epidemic.

On November 5th, 2018, the Alberta Legislature unanimously passed a motion sponsored by Edmonton-Manning MLA Heather Sweet urging cooperation with municipal and federal government counterparts to stop the problem before it spreads further.

The mountain pine beetle represents a particularly dangerous threat in Canada due to our boreal forests. Pine trees, breathtaking in natural beauty and ripe for pine beetle infestation, stretch all the way from British Columbia, through Alberta, and onward in a band that reaches all the way to Quebec's east coast.

Governments across Canada are taking note-with the Government of Alberta spending more than $500 million over the past ten years and even receiving assistance from the Government of Saskatchewan to help slow the spread before it moves further east.

As scientific experts, including Janice Cooke, warn of how quickly the pine beetle can spread through our forests and forever change the landscape, the window to act to stop the spread of red may quickly close.

One year ago

"Take a look at these forests, because in five years, they're not going to look like that," said Janice Cooke, associate professor at the University of Alberta and director of the NSERC TRIA Mountain Pine Beetle Strategic Network in November, 2017. "Many of the pines that you can see from the Highway 16 corridor through the park will have been killed by the beetle." Her assessment is proving correct.

(Our original story from November 17, 2017, continues below:)

Cooke explained that a small cluster of infected trees at the west gate only a few years ago has now turned into more 10,000 infected trees today with the number set to spike even higher as the outbreak of the destructive Mountain Pine Beetle further spreads. The outbreak has spread from the west entrance of Jasper, to the point where attacked trees are now being detected beyond the eastern border of the park, encroaching on the town of Hinton.

"Our parks are precious to us as Canadians, and our parks are under threat," said Cooke. "The outbreak in Jasper is increasing rapidly, and Banff is under pressure too. This Mountain Pine Beetle outbreak has every potential to radically change the landscape of the forests in the mountain parks in the same way that we saw in British Columbia a decade ago, and the rehabilitation efforts are almost unfathomable."

"This Mountain Pine Beetle outbreak has every potential to radically change the landscape of the forests in the mountain parks in the same way that we saw in British Columbia a decade ago."

Researchers and forest health professionals alike will be keenly following what happens this winter. Adult beetles fly during the summer, finding suitable pine trees and attacking them by boring through the bark. If enough beetles attack a tree, they can overcome the tree's defenses and create galleries under the bark. The beetles carry fungal partners with them, which grow into the wood and block water transport up the tree.

"The pine trees basically are water starved to death," said Cooke. "The red needles that we see are the consequence of water not making it from the roots to the branches because of the beetles and their fungi." The larvae develop through the autumn, take a hiatus through the winter months, and continue developing in the spring. Once the damage has been done to an individual tree, TRIA-Net research has shown that the beetles can fly many kilometres to find their next host tree.

Mountain pine beetles are thriving in places where the habitat used to be considered too inhospitable, such as Jasper. Any set of circumstances that allow for more beetles to attack trees, compromise tree defenses, or increase beetle survival can exacerbate the outbreak. For example, unseasonably warm winters over the past couple of years have allowed more larvae to survive to adulthood. TRIA-Net researchers have learned more about why drier conditions during the spring and summer leave the trees more vulnerable and less able to defend themselves from the attack of the beetles.

Not only are the threats immediate and obvious with direct implications on Alberta's forestry and recreational industries, longer-term impacts include serious threats to Alberta's water sources, many of which feed through tributaries, which travel through Jasper's Eastern slope, including the North Saskatchewan and Bow rivers. Another threat is the danger that these dead trees are like thousands of matchsticks, just waiting to go up in flames, as has been evidenced in the increasingly all-too-familiar forest fires.

Top tips for playing your part in reducing the spread of Mountain Pine Beetle:

  • Buy your firewood from an approved vendor, typically right at the campsite
  • Never transport firewood
  • Report a red tree or one showing fade (yellowing) by phoning the Alberta hotline: 310.BUGS
  • Talk to your member of parliament or legislative assembly

"Pine needles accumulate a lot of flammable substances when they are dying, and the bark is filled with flammable pitch. If a fire were to rip through Jasper right now, it would burn like an inferno," warned Cooke. "Mountain Pine Beetles consumed 18 million hectares in BC. That's like half the size of Sweden. We have more than one million hectares that have already been affected in Alberta. The time to act was yesterday."

Cooke and her colleagues through the TRIA Network continue to fight for the forests. She said, while it's too late to save the already dead trees, the time is now to act to stop further spread at the Eastern gates. "When you leave a mountain pine beetle outbreak unchecked, you built up a lot of population. If there are that many red trees, there are already a ton of beetles. The time for control is when the populations are on the increase. There comes a point in the progression of an outbreak that the money and effort to control it are too much. At that point, you have to walk away, because it becomes an unwinnable battle. But all is not lost. We know that control can be effective when the populations are still on the upswing, which is the case in the more eastern portions of the park. Researchers have learned a lot about the conditions at which control is efficacious, and that knowledge can be freely shared."