Slave Lake 2020 pine beetle survey underway

Pearl Lorentzen
Lakeside Leader

In May and June, Alberta Environment and Parks gathers data for a mountain pine beetle population forecast survey.

The information gleaned from last year’s survey resulted in a medium number of trees removed to slow the spread of the pine beetle.

Jenn MacCormick has been the Slave Lake Forest Area Forest Health Officer since 2013.

In 2019, she says, Alberta Environment and Parks investigated 644 sites of suspected mountain pine beetle infestation and cut down and burnt 2,232 trees in the Slave Lake Forest Area.

The government started treating for pine beetles in 2006. The pine beetle infestation cycles from low to high years. For example, in the Slave Lake Forest Area, some winters only a few trees are controlled, but one year up to 21,000 trees had to be removed. This puts 2019 on the middle range of trees.

Trees killed by pine beetles turn a distinctive red, says MacCormick. This allows for an aerial population forecast survey. The survey is done from a helicopter using GPS. It is called a Heli-GPS survey.

The Slave Lake Forest Area Mountain Pine Beetle Heli-GPS Survey 2019 shows all of the red trees in the Slave Lake area. Last year, they were in two clusters, both in the southern half of the forest. One was around the Swan Hills between East Prairie Métis Settlement and just past Grizzly Ridge Wildlands. The other was more spread out – from east of Marten Beach across Marten Hills to across the border into the Lac La Biche Forestry Area north of Rock Island Lake. The furthest north trees are south of Sandy Lake, southeast of Wabasca.

On May 7, the Alberta government announced extra funding for Yellowhead County and the Edson Forest Area to fight pine beetles. This area to the southwest of Slave Lake has a more intense infestation than the Slave Lake Forest Area.

Forest Health Officers fight against mountain pine beetle and other pests year-round. As already mentioned the spring is the time for the Heli-GPS Survey.

In August to September, people investigate each cluster of three or more red trees with 50 metres of each other. These teams will be on the ground to confirm which trees were killed by pine beetles.

Trees infested by pine beetles are marked for treatment when the snow is on the ground.

The final step in the year-long process is the treatment of these trees. This is done by cutting them down and burning them. This can take from two weeks to a month depending on the number of trees. These stages align with the pine beetle life cycle.

Adult beetles start to emerge from dead trees around mid-July, says MacCormick. These beetles find new trees to nest in. The females bore a hole into the live tree in late July or early August. They lay their eggs. The eggs hatch after two weeks. The young feed and tunnel under the bark. The young live sleep during the winter. In the spring they are active again, until they are full grown and the cycle starts over.

Forest Health Officers do other surveys to look at the health of the forest, says MacCormick. Each year, a general aerial survey is done by airplane.

Areas of concern are looked at from a lower altitude using a helicopter. This survey looks for pine beetles and other dangers to the health of the forest. While pine beetles get the most press, there are other bugs detrimental to the health of the forest. These include forest tent caterpillars, spruce budworms, and willow leaf miners.

Forest tent caterpillars eat the leaves of deciduous trees. Trees killed by spruce budworms are a different shade of reddish brown than those killed by pine beetles. Willow leaf bugs eat the inside of the leaves, which kills the willow.

MacCormick gathers other data. One study has to do with Canadian food safety and involves trapping gypsy moths in the winter.

MacCormick has had people bring her samples from sick trees on their acreages and farms. While she is still willing to help out with questions, the forestry office is currently closed due to the public COVID-19. She is available via phone.

The Slave Lake Forest Area Mountain Pine Beetle Heli-GPS Survey 2019. The map only shows the southern half of the area. The red dots are trees killed by pine beetles. There are two clusters in the southern portion of the forest area. Courtesy of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

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