The stately elms of Main Street: there are rules

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

Here’s something we didn’t know until last week; elm trees are protected in Alberta. There are actual laws regarding what you can and can’t do with them. And it appears the Town of Slave Lake is in violation thereof.

‘Alberta elm pruning ban starts April 1’ says the headline on the relevant page of the Government of Alberta website.

The ban, along with associated regulations, has to do with keeping Dutch elm disease from wiping out this favoured tree of urban landscapes. The disease has done just that to elms in parts of the world and the authorities want to keep it out of Alberta.

The bug that does the damage likes dead parts of the tree. So the government advice continues as follows: ‘To prevent the spread of Dutch elm disease, burn, bury or chip properly pruned elm wood and elm firewood by March 31.’

The reason to not prune your elms in the warm months is that it facilitates the attack of the beetles that carry the disease, making the trees more susceptible.

“Every time you make a cut it sends off a pheromone that attracts the beetles,” says Janet Feddes-Calpas of STOPDED (Society to Prevent Dutch Elm Disease).

Severely pruned elms by the town office in Slave Lake.

So why did the Town of Slave Lake crop all those elms near the town office?
It certainly had nothing to do with black knot fungus, which is apparently what some people assume. That disease only afflicts members of the cherry family of trees and shrubs, of which the mayday tree appears to be the worst culprit.

Slave Lake resident Andy Maddex figures it had to do with keeping the elms from overhanging the town parking lot. It was him that brought the issue to the attention of The Leader last week. The town had no business trimming the elms, he says, and should be called to account on it. If any trees in town should be pruned, it’s the ones displaying the black knot fungus on their branches. The Slave Lake Health Care Centre has a lot of these, and has resisted all suggestions over the years they do something about it. Maddex blames the municipality for that as well.

“The town won’t make them do it!” he says.

But getting back to the elms, keeping them alive is a serious business.
Feddes-Calpas says their protection is covered under the Agricultural Pests Act, and municipalities are responsible for knowing what to do and doing it. The beetle that carries the fungus that kills the elm trees is not prevalent in Alberta, but it is here.

“It’s creeping west from Saskatchewan,” she says. “Be aware.”

If you think an elm tree is diseased, report it. STOPDED has beetle traps and will provide them.

Feddes-Calpas said she was going to call the town and ask them about the pruning. Garry Roth, the town’s director of community services, told The Leader it was a mistake by the town and that the town is seeking advice on how to proceed from STOPDED.

Black knot fungus – it does not affect elm trees.

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