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Jasper Park's pine beetles may be hardier genetic hybrids, study says

Mountain pine beetles devastating the forests of Jasper National Park are genetic hybrids that may be more resistant to extermination, a University of Alberta study says.

'If they really get a foothold in that boreal habitat, then we will lose a huge amount of forest'

Mountain pine beetles are native to B.C. but are considered an invasive species in Alberta. (Ward Strong/B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations)

Mountain pine beetles devastating the forests of Jasper National Park are genetic hybrids that may be more resistant to extermination, a University of Alberta study says.

"What we discovered is an eye of the storm where we see a sort of mixture of two genetic populations coming together in Jasper National Park," said Jasmine Janes, an evolutionary biologist and lead author of the study, which was published Friday in The Forestry Chronicle.

"They create a lot of destruction in terms of forest habitat and that is a particular concern for a lot of people because if they really get a foothold in that boreal habitat, then we will lose a huge amount of forest worldwide."

Janes and Stephen Trevoy set out to trace the genetic origins of the mountain pine beetle in Jasper, and found beetles in the area are a hybrid of populations from north and south of the park.

In this Aug. 24, 2006 picture, a mountain pine beetle crawls out of a ponderosa pine tree while another, right, remains in its hole in Green Mountain Falls, Colo. Strong wind, recent rain, melting snow and a beetle infestation have become a dangerous combination in the forests of Colorado and Wyoming. Don't camp, park or otherwise linger beneath any of the millions of trees killed by bark beetles in recent years, the U.S. Forest Service warned Wednesday, June 16, 2010. (Hunter McRae/The Gazette/The Associated Press)

The genetic diversity of beetle populations in Jasper may encourage the spread of the destructive insects, said Janes.

"Superbugs is maybe not the word I would use, but they are of concern," Janes said. "They are a population that we would like to keep an eye on.

"Because of those two populations coming together, it does mean that they might have more capacity to adapt to different conditions in the future."

The beetles in Jasper have a different genetic signature from those found in the Grande Prairie outbreak of 2009, and are genetically different from specimens collected during the outbreak in B.C. in 2005, Janes said.

'It's progressing further east'

Researchers believe that beetles from southwest of the park travelled through the pine forest in B.C. until they reached the mountains, while beetles from the north moved south.

The two disparate populations then mixed and funnelled back down to the forest edges. First evidence of the unique genetic signature was found in the Valemount area in 2014.

"It's really interesting that it's still there and that it's progressing further east," Janes said.

"We are concerned, if left unchecked, those genetic signatures coming together could allow for more adaptation to different conditions.

"We have some evidence to suggest that these beetles are adapting to colder conditions, and they're getting better at flying longer distances."

The Government of Alberta has spent nearly half a billion dollars on controlling the spread of the beetle since 2006. This involves regular aerial surveys, and clear-cutting of infected trees in an effort to slow their spread.

Genotyping can help support existing management efforts and should be incorporated into ongoing efforts to curb new infestations, Janes said.

"Genetic monitoring can help us pinpoint those areas with high genetic diversity and areas that might be contributing to its spread," he said.

"It might help us to go back and target specific populations and manage them more carefully."

The research was funded by the NSERC TRIA Network, after scientists sounded the alarm on the outbreak in Jasper National Park late in 2017, where mountain pine beetles have already affected more than 20,000 hectares of forest.

About the Author

Wallis Snowdon

Journalist

Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has nearly a decade of experience reporting behind her. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca