The needles of pine trees infected by the mountain pine beetle turn red before the tree dies, as visible on Whistlers Mountain in Jasper National Park on July 12, 2018.Janet French / Postmedia


One or two weeks, they kept telling us.

One or two weeks of blistering cold weather would knock the dreaded pine beetle back on its collective butt.

The billions, if not trillions of rice-sized varmints overwintering in our forests were supposed to freeze to a well-deserved death, as the deep cold penetrated into the inner bark off of which the  beetles feed.

Well? Well?

We just had the coldest February on record for the past 40 years!


Are the pine beetles frozen toast?  In the Battle of Alberta, will the pine beetles be stopped in their current occupied territory — an arc of infected forest swinging from Grande Prairie to Slave Lake to Whitecourt, over to Hinton and Jasper National Park?

Umm … ahh … maybe … however …

It turns out the “one or two weeks” is a tad mythological.

The problem, says provincial forest entomologist Mike Undershultz, is the beetle is one tough cookie.

“The cold is going to help. But it’s not the end. In some areas, we’ve had 95% mortality  (i.e. only 5% of the beetles survived the cold), which is good. But the sheer numbers – especially in Jasper National Park – mean the beetles can reproduce and keep moving. We need a 97% mortality rate to really knock them out.”

Thanks to a well-planned provincial “Healthy Pine Strategy” – a coordinated plan  between the province, municipalities and forestry companies –  Alberta has done extremely well containing the pine beetle invasion.  Outside of Jasper National Park, that is.

The pine beetle infestation first showed up in the B.C. interior about 30 years ago. Successive warmer winters, scientists agree, allowed more and more beetles to survive.

In B.C. the numbers got way ahead of preventive measures. Too much B.C. forest – as much as 50% – has been invaded by the beetle. The dead forest provided the fuel for 2018’s terrible B.C. forest fires.

In 2006, a massive “overflight” bought the beetles – locust-like — to Alberta. A huge swarm of beetles from B.C. rode the wind to the Grande Prairie area, to munch on tasty, fresh pines.

Armed with insight from B.C., Alberta’s Healthy Pine Strategy swung into action, initially determining where the beetles were, and where they were going.  “Where there was light infestation, crews moved in quickly to harvest or burn the stands.” says Alberta Forest Products Association spokesperson Brock Mulligan.

Good news within the bad: Beetle-infected timber can still be used – up to a certain point – as feedstock for Alberta’s wood-processing mills.

For the Healthy Pine Strategy, Level 2,  crews moved into older pine tree stands close to the infested areas. “The trick is to harvest susceptible older trees before, or shortly after, the pine beetles move in,” says Mulligan. “By limiting nearby food, we limit its spread.”

Good news, bad news … between the cold and the Healthy Pine Strategy, the pine beetle spread across Alberta should be dramatically curtailed.

Had it not been for Parks Canada policy, a victory over the pine beetle might well be imminent. The 2006 overflight spread the beetle into Jasper National Park. Parks Canada initially stayed within its mandate of leaving national parks as natural as possible, i.e. with minimal human interference.

The park has since implemented preventive measures to slow the pine beetles’ spread. But, like B.C., it has been too little, too late, with some 50% of the park’s forest infected. The beetles continue to spread east, out of the park around Cadomin, Hinton and Grande Cache.

In spite of the Jasper Park build-up – thanks to the cold snap and the pan-Alberta war against the pine beetle, Mulligan says things are looking up.

But this is mother nature. “The cold may not be cold enough. We don’t know how quickly the beetle can adapt to the cold. The beetle is so heavy in Jasper that survivors could keep crawling out.”

Mulligan says the successful Healthy Pine Strategy has kept Alberta’s rural forestry operations moving along without mill closures or dramatic lay-offs among its 17,000 workers. The industry contributed $7.5 billion to the 2018 Alberta economy.  “Mills in B.C. are closing as their feedstock diminishes,” he says. “That’s not been the case here.”

This is mother nature: “It all helps,” says Undershultz. “The cold weather has helped. A few more severely cold winters would really help.”

In Jasper National Park, the pine beetle will eventually run out of trees to feed on, says Undershultz, and populations will subside.

“I’ll hold off on any predictions until we get survey results in June,” says Undershultz. “But … I’m cautiously optimistic.”