The beetles are coming

The mountain pine beetle is creeping closer to the Yukon. It's not in the territory yet, but infested trees have been spotted only 80 kilometres from the Yukon border.

The mountain pine beetle is creeping closer to the Yukon.

It’s not in the territory yet, but infested trees have been spotted only 80 kilometres from the Yukon border, said Rob Legare, who looks after the forest health program for the territorial government.

The tiny beetle, native to southern B.C., has crept farther north for years, thanks to a warming climate.

The cold winter of 2010 slowed the spread, but with the main body of the infestation only 150 kilometres south of the territorial border, said Legare.

Next month, Yukon government officials will meet with their First Nation counterparts and other land managers to discuss the threat posed by the beetle.

“The Yukon is a unique jurisdiction,” said Legare.

The big concern in Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan – where the beetle is making, or threatening to make, inroads – is the commercial forestry industry. The Yukon has other concerns.

“In our case our wood-fibre industry is pretty minimal, so it would be other values that would trigger a response,” said Legare.

Woodland caribou depend on pine forests. Dead pines also affect nearby water systems. These changes could affect “the intrinsic values that First Nations and other people put on that land,” said Legare.

Mountain pine beetles are hard to stop. But selective harvesting or controlled burning of trees may help.

The beetle is found throughout North America.

It lays its eggs in the bark of pine trees. After the larvae hatch, they gorge themselves on the inner bark, ringing the trunk and cutting off the tree’s water supply.

The little beetles can’t travel far on their own. But if they catch the wind, they can spread very quickly.

“That’s the real destructive force of the mountain pine beetle,” said Legare. “When the population gets big enough, there’s a percentage of the population that gets up into the wind and can move long distances.”

The suspicion is that the beetles were blown north several years ago, but no one knows for sure.

“We’re going to be looking at the overwintering populations in the trees to see if those populations are increasing or decreasing, and whether they’re local or wind blown,” he said. “We really do expect that it will trickle in, that it won’t be these massive populations.”

The hope is that the territory’s cold winters will keep the beetle from establishing itself. A week of minus-40 temperatures is a death sentence for the bugs. But the Yukon government isn’t counting on that.

Unlike the response to the spruce bark beetle in the 1990s, which wasn’t identified until 30,000 hectares of forest were infested, the forestry service has been monitoring the progression of the mountain pine beetle for years.

“We are taking a really proactive approach,” said Legare.

By this autumn, the forestry service expects to produce a report detailing recommendations for how to respond to the beetle assault.

Contact Josh Kerr at

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