Beetle infestation spooks slash happy government

Yukon terrorists are small, black and have six legs. They’re based near Haines Junction. And they devour spruce.

Yukon terrorists are small, black and have six legs.

They’re based near Haines Junction.

And they devour spruce.

Like any accomplished terrorist, the guerilla arthropods have instilled fear in local residents and have territorial politicians demanding action.

Not only are spruce beetles killing the forest, the hard-shelled critters are also increasing carbon dioxide output, adding to wildfire risk and compromising the territory’s natural resources, say Yukon Party politicians.

 “In the Southwest Yukon we have the largest spruce bark beetle infestation on, I believe, the North American continent,” Premier Dennis Fentie said during the spring sitting of the legislature.

“This region should be declared a natural disaster.”

But not everyone bought YTG’s red alert.

On Thursday, a group of concerned Haines Junction residents launched an “awareness flier” to debunk many of the myths surrounding the beetles.

Backed by eight scientists, the document is being mailed to everyone in the Kluane area.

“The idea is to provide accurate information to residents so they can make decisions based on facts, not fear-mongering,” said electrical engineer and area resident Dieter Gade.

The two-page flier begins by addressing the popular perception that human intervention is required to stop the beetle infestation — a view held by Fentie and Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Archie Lang.

“We would like to see a proponent go in there and harvest (the spruce) and address some of the issues that are soon moving into our area, the Whitehorse area, because this affects all spruce forest,” said Lang in May.

“If you fly over it and see the spread of the beetle kill, this is a very urgent management situation.”

The Yukon needs “to mitigate and reduce the impact and effects” of this infestation, said Fentie.

Impossible, said Canadian Forest Service technician Rod Garbutt.

The forest insect and disease specialist discovered the Yukon’s spruce beetle infestation in ‘94, and has been surveying and mapping it annually ever since.

Logging won’t deter the beetles, said Garbutt on Monday.

“There has never been serious talk by anyone who knew anything about the beetles of controlling the beetle by logging,” he said.

“It’s not possible, it never was.”

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge ecologist Ed Berg agrees.

“Human intervention is certainly not going to stop it — that’s just a joke,” he said from Alaska on Thursday.

“It won’t stop it unless you’re prepared to cut down everything in the whole territory.

“If you cut down all of the forest, you’ve taken away the beetle habitat — but do you want to do that?

“You just don’t stop those kind of large-scale outbreaks by cutting down trees.”

In the early ‘90s, Berg lived through a major spruce beetle infestation that affected Southern Alaska, Kenai Peninsula and the Yukon.

“And you can’t stop those outbreaks,” he said.

“It would be like trying to stop the tide by dipping water out of the ocean.”

In smaller infestations, “trap trees” can be cut down to lure the beetles away from the healthy forest.

“You cut a few trees in the winter, leave them on the ground and in the spring the beetles are attracted to the recently downed trees, and will really hone in on it,” said Berg.

“And once they’re in the bark, you can buck up the tree and burn it, or just peel it and the exposed eggs will die.”

It’s a technique that has been used in Scandinavia for hundreds of years.

“But once the numbers really get cranked up, there’s simply no way of stopping it, which is the situation you’re in right now,” he said.

The beetles are being used to justify logging around Haines Junction, said Gade.

“They want to log out the dead trees because of fire risk, but this is over-inflated,” he said.

The Yukon needs to “reduce the impact and effects that this infestation is having, not only on the forest, but also in terms of the potential for wildfire putting communities at risk,” said Fentie during the spring sitting.

“The Champagne-Aishihik First Nations have a realistic fear of the fire potential in their traditional territory,” added Lang.

“We are concentrating on the one million cubic metres out there for explicitly working on the beetle kill.”

People don’t understand wildfire, said Berg.

“Green trees burn every bit as well as dead trees if they’re dry,” he said.

“And you have a dry climate. So in a warm summer the fire risk is just as high in a green forest as it is in a dead forest.

“The only way to stop the fire worry is to cut down everything, live or dead.”

However, dead standing trees killed by the spruce beetle will ignite under much less favorable conditions for forest fires than a green forest, said Garbutt.

Logging the beetle-kill forest will help the territory go green, said Fentie.

“Our plan is to reduce carbon output,” he said.

“Because we all know that the massive infestation of spruce bark beetle is actually increasing Yukon’s carbon output because the trees are dead.”

Not so, said Berg.

Harvesting trees creates waste or slash.

“And people burn that, and it quickly converts it to CO2,” he said.

“The slowest way to release the CO2 is to leave the wood in place.”

The only reason to log a beetle-kill forest is to profit from the resources, said Berg.

“The point of logging it is to try and get the money out of the trees before they rot.”

But in the Yukon’s dry climate, loggers have plenty of time, he added.

Saw logs should be harvested within 10 years and pulp trees will probably last 20.

Kenai and Southern Alaska have recovered from their beetle infestations, and Berg expects the Yukon will follow course.

The spruce beetles are on the decline, said Garbutt.

In August, the Canadian Forest Service reported the spread of the spruce beetle has slowed in southwest Yukon, and predicted the outbreak should collapse within two years.

“My guess is it will collapse completely in two or three years,” said Garbutt.

Cold winters and chilly summers have helped, said Berg.

If winter temperatures dip below minus 40, beetle larvae die, he added.

“And when summers are cooler, the beetles aren’t as effective at damaging the trees.”

Residents have been living in fear, said Gade, who moved to the community three years ago.

“The beetle is portrayed as the boogeyman,” he said.

“But I heard from environmental groups that is wasn’t as bad as it was portrayed.”

“The forest will regenerate by itself in time,” said Berg.

“It always has, and it always will.”