Jasper’s mayor is concerned the mountain pine beetle, which is spreading eastward through the park, could increase the community’s wildfire risk.

Mayor Richard Ireland raised his concern during a meeting with Parks Canada on Oct. 16. The mayors of Hinton and Yellowhead County, as well as representatives from the forestry industry, also attended the meeting.

“As the forest turns increasingly red and dead west of us, our primarily concern locally is the safety of the community from wildfire,” said Ireland, who took an aerial tour of the park last week to see the beetle’s impact first hand.

During the meeting, Parks shared information about its ongoing mountain pine beetle studies and briefed officials about its proposed strategy to mitigate the impact of the beetle in the park.

“Although Parks has a pine beetle strategy, the plan has not yet been signed off,” said Ireland.

“They are hoping that when we have our new superintendent early next month the plan will get the superintendent’s approval and then they’ve got something they can actually work with and base a broader agreement on with other jurisdictions.”

Ireland said there was general agreement amongst stakeholders that they need to continue working toward a formal agreement if they want to slow the spread of the beetle. A representative from the province was not in attendance at the meeting and Alberta Forestry and Agriculture did not return phone calls to explain its absence.

“Generally speaking I think the meeting was informative in the sense that people understood what Parks has been doing and what knowledge they’re using to go forward, and industry shared their views and there was broad agreement that mitigation efforts are essential and should start right away,” said Ireland.

Parks declined to comment on its plan or its ongoing mitigation efforts.

However, MP Jim Eglinski, who was re-elected as the representative for Yellowhead Oct. 19, said he is prepared to take action on the issue.

“Hopefully they come up with a good action plan that will keep local industry outside the park happy and communities inside the park safe.

“But if not I’m prepared to meet with the new environmental minister and bring her or him up to speed.”

Parks’ preferred method to deal with the beetle is prescribed burns.

“They showed us maps with treatment zones where they would do prescribed burns with the intent to stop the spread of pine beetle into the working forest east of town,” said Ireland. “Of course I was more interested in the impacts that Jasper might feel from pine beetle in terms of the safety of the community. From our perspective, the treatment west of town is more important than treatment east of town.”

The reasoning goes that large swaths of dead pine trees are more susceptible to wildfires. On top of this the prevailing winds blow east through Jasper, making any wildfire west of town a potential threat to the community.

Despite not having an approved pine beetle plan, Ireland said Parks’ Fire Smart plan is already well established and both plans will likely share many of the same objectives.

“Because there is such overlap between the prescribed burns for Fire Smart and the prescribed burns for pine beetle, they can move forward with the prescribed burns that are dedicated more specially to community protection.

“The difficulty of course is those prescribed burns have to await the arrival of the actual prescription—the conditions have to be just right.”

In September the provincial government released details of its overwinter mortality survey indicating the mountain pine beetle survived last winter relatively unscathed in Jasper National Park.

According to the survey, the beetle did extremely well west of the Jasper townsite along the Highway 16 corridor and it is moving eastward through the park.

The beetle kills pine trees by burrowing under the bark and mining the phloem, the layer between the bark and wood of the tree. The beetles then lay eggs under the bark. After the eggs hatch, the grub-like larvae spend the winter feeding under the bark. In the spring, the larvae pupate and emerge as adults from July to September, before moving onto the next mature pine tree.

According to Ireland, the pine beetle is most prevalent in the Miette River Valley, which poses the greatest wildfire risk to the community.
He said other areas in the park where beetle are present include the upper Whirlpool Valley, Athabasca Valley and Maligne Valley. 

“From my untrained eye I didn’t see as many red trees up Whirlpool, but certainly there’s enough to be a concern and there’s enough to know they’re coming over the upper Whirlpool Pass and probably Fraser Pass and Athabasca Pass as well and working their way into the Athabasca Valley.”

As part of the helicopter tour last week, the group also flew over the B.C. border to Yellowhead Lake where the beetle is at its worst and they also took a tour of the east end of the park, although Ireland got dropped off early to attend another meeting. 

In addition to the risk of wildfire, Ireland also said the beetle could impact the tourism industry.

“I think it’s a reasonable expectation that it will have some impact, just what that impact will be is hard to say,” he said.