The mountain pine beetle continues to attack pine trees at an exponential rate in Jasper National Park and has the potential to overrun the park’s forests within the next few years.

According to Parks Canada, just over 21,500 hectares of the park’s pine forests have now been colonized by the beetle, more than three times the amount mapped in 2014. A year earlier, the agency mapped 122 hectares.

“Controlling the mountain pine beetle is not a workable solution,” said Salman Rasheed, Jasper’s resource conservation manager, during Jasper National Park’s annual forum, March 16.

“Simply put, I think the rate of infection and the current climate conditions, as well as the amount of pine habitat that’s out there, makes eliminating the mountain pine beetle issue problematic,” he said.

“Just to give you a bit of context, in 2013 and earlier we were literally counting individual trees … and now very suddenly we’re talking about hectares.”

Breaking down the numbers, if the pine beetle population continues to triple in size year-after-year, the entire park could be colonized by 2020.

“Unless [there is] a 97 per cent kill of the population of beetles, they stand to increase substantially next year and I would be concerned the population growth could actually accelerate next year,” said Keith McClain, lead scientist for the mountain pine beetle ecology program with the Foothills Research Institute.

“All you need is a couple of warm winters or mild winters and the beetles will probably move from an indigenous state to an epidemic state.”

Kevin Van Tighem, a former superintendent for Banff National Park, cautioned that the rate of growth cannot be determined mathematically and said it’s dependent on a number of factors such as winter severity, summer drought and the distribution of vulnerable pine stands.

“Its growth to date is not an indication of its future growth, which could be slower or faster,” wrote Van Tighem in an email.

He also rejected the idea that the mountain pine beetle is a problem.

“Pine beetle outbreaks are, in essence, one of nature’s built-in mechanisms for climate change adaptation in natural forests,” he wrote.

“Besides helping forests adjust to changing climate and more frequent soil moisture deficits, pine beetle outbreaks enable more sun and rain to reach the forest floor, increasing the diversity and productivity of understory vegetation relied on by species like elk, bears, voles, etc. The dead trees become habitat for woodpeckers, flying squirrels, owls and bats. There is often an explosion of biodiversity once a pine beetle population eruption passes through an area.”

Mountain pine beetle has always existed in Western Canada, but decades of fire suppression, combined with global warming, has left forests particularly vulnerable to the beetle.

In the early 2000s, the beetle’s population exploded in British Columbia, affecting more than 40 million acres and devastating the province’s forestry industry.

Concerns about the beetle—which kill trees by burrowing under their bark, stopping the flow of nutrients—have escalated in recent years, as it makes its way from B.C. across Alberta.

Pine beetles prefer larger, older trees, which tend to be less resistant to the beetle, creating the perfect situation for pine beetles to flourish. In Jasper, the beetles tend to emerge as adults in mid-July before colonizing the next mature pine tree.

“We have many stands in Jasper and in montane ecosystems that have old, big trees and old, big trees are the perfect habitat for the mountain pine beetle,” explained Rasheed.

“One of the natural ways that we control mountain pine beetle is long, cold winters, -40 for weeks on end, and we just aren’t seeing those kind of control mechanisms anymore.”

According to a map presented during the annual park forum, the pine beetle is flourishing in the Miette Valley along Highway 16 west of town, as well as in the Whirlpool Valley. There are also pockets of the beetle along the Athabasca Valley and Maligne Valley.

Rasheed emphasized that the beetle is already well established in other parts of the province and suggested claims that Jasper is responsible for allowing it to spread further east are unfounded.

Parks released details of its draft mountain pine beetle strategy during the forum.

The strategy lays out three main tactics the park intends to implement, including cutting down and burning individual trees, using prescribed burns and mechanical treatment, such as using machinery to widen fireguards around the townsite.

According to Rasheed, the agency will likely cut down and burn individual trees on the eastern side of the park where there are fewer beetles, such as along the Athabasca Valley.

He said the biggest challenge with this tactic is that access to certain areas of the park—where there are no roads—can be challenging.

When it comes to prescribed burns, he stressed prescribed fire is not being used to manage the mountain pine beetle as much as it is being used to replicate natural processes and restore the park’s ecosystems.

According to Rasheed, Parks intends to create a new containment line or “capping unit” along the Fiddle River and the eastern border of the park, near the east gate, ultimately culminating in a “pine-free zone” along the Athabasca Valley, eliminating potential pine beetle habitat.

To protect the townsite, Parks intends to enhance the width and integrity of several fireguards around town, including the Maligne fireguard, Cabin Lake/Stone Mountain fireguard and the Tekarra fireguard.

Rasheed said Parks also hopes to carry out prescribed burns on the bench above town this summer if conditions allow and also intends to remove infected hazard trees in town.

He couldn’t provide an exact date when the draft policy will be publicly available, but said it is sitting on his desk and will be ready soon.