Faced with increasing losses of millions of trees being killed by the dramatic spread of the mountain pine beetle, Jasper National Park has come up with a new plan to halt the beetle’s infestation.

A new management plan was released July 22 after a tripling of the beetle population in the park over the past two years.

“I’m astounded at how quickly and rapidly the beetle has affected the pine forest through these valleys,” said Keith McClain, the program lead for the mountain pine beetle ecology program at the Foothills research institute in Hinton.

Just a couple of years ago park officials were only counting individual trees attacked by the beetle. The insect causes its devastation by burrowing under the tree bark and stops the flow of nutrients.

Parks Canada believes large swaths of the forest have been affected, with an estimated 21,568 hectares of lodgepole pines killed by its invasion.

“Jasper is facing a change in the landscape, from nice green pine stands to red pine stands,” said McClain.

The pines turn red after they have succumbed to the beetles’ onslaught.

Parks Canada confirms affected areas include trees in the Miette River Valley corridor along Highway 16 west of the Jasper townsite.

‘Mass Attack’

Trees along Maligne Lake Road and areas south of Jasper along the Icefields Parkway have also been under attack from the beetle.

McClain, whose institute is researching and attempting to understand the ecology of the beetle in Alberta, describes the pest’s spread in Jasper as a “mass attack” and an “epidemic.”

He says temperature plays a role, as warm winters mean fewer beetles are killed off in the cold.

To slow the spread of the beetle, Parks Canada has unveiled a plan that will use a number of approaches in working alongside the province of Alberta and the town of Jasper.

It includes doing prescribed burns as well as cutting down swaths of trees in an attempt to take away the beetles’ food source.

The beetle is considered to be a naturally occurring species. But the park sees intervention as a measured approach necessary in the circumstances.

“I’d sum it up as a reasonable response to a very difficult situation,” said Salman Rasheed, resource conservation manager for Jasper National Park.

“Mountain pine beetle is a tremendous challenge. It is rampant throughout British Columbia and Alberta now,” said Rasheed.

He said the response Parks Canada is taking is needed for several key reasons, including keeping the park safe for tourists as well as people who live in Jasper.

Rasheed said a beetle infestation of this magnitude results in a lot more standing dead trees. The trees are more susceptible to other insect species, as well as storms possibly knocking them over.

‘We’re doing what we can’

In addition to the danger posed to tourists, Rasheed said there’s an increased risk of fire. Three areas have been earmarked for prescribed burns of infected trees in Jasper, but an unusually wet summer has meant they haven’t started yet.

He’s hoping the burns go ahead before the snow starts coming down. But they can’t go ahead unless conditions are optimal to make sure it’s safe. The scale of the tree cutting measures are still to be determined.

The approach is one Rasheed said he believes will finally slow down the beetle’s advance.

“I’m fairly confident, I mean I think we’re doing what we can. I think the jury is still out (and) we will need some follow-up monitoring to assess how effective our actions are.”