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Pine beetles advancing quickly across Alberta, new study finds

Mountain pine beetles are advancing across Alberta and finding footholds in forests so quickly they don’t have time to genetically differentiate, according to a study from the University of Alberta‘s biological sciences department.

Alberta has seen the number of pine beetle infestations grow since the early 2000s

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 are advancing across Alberta and finding footholds in forests so quickly they don't have time to genetically differentiate, according to a study from the University of Alberta's biological sciences department.

In what is the first attempt to track spread of the pests across the province, researchers sampled pine beetles from locations such as Slave Lake, Fox Creek and Lac La Biche, using genetic information to find out where the beetles originated.

Alberta has seen infestations grow since the early 2000s when the beetles began blowing into the province from B.C. in swarms sometimes large enough to be detected by radar.

The swarms used updrafts to cross the Rocky Mountains and into the Grande Prairie and Jasper areas.  

The wind is also likely responsible for delivering beetles from those regions to forests across Alberta, with the Jasper population travelling particularly far.

"Based on what we found, we identified beetles from Jasper as far northeast as Slave Lake … telling us that they're potentially travelling thousands of kilometres," said lead researcher Victor Shegelski in a phone interview.

Researchers also found the two populations are mixing together as they move northeast.

Populations of mountain pine beetles typically develop unique genetic markers when they isolate from other groups for a period of time, Shegelski said in an interview on CBC's Edmonton AM.

However, researchers found the Jasper and Grande Prairie populations were moving to the northeast so rapidly, they were staying genetically similar.

"We now know they're spreading quite rapidly," Shegelski said.

"This could have complications with beetles that are on the leading edge of the infestation in Alberta right now, because they have consistent reinforcements coming in from behind them."

Researchers worry that as mountain pine beetles advance across Alberta, they may begin to more readily infest jack pines, which extend from the prairies into the Maritimes. Right now, mountain pine beetles typically target lodgepole pines.

Alberta forests may still get a break from the beetles if weather conditions keep their numbers down. The past two wet summers and cold winters have slowed their progress, Shegelski said.

"One thing researchers have to do now is understand the dynamics of these outbreaks as much as possible so we have the tools to deal with it when it happens again in the future," he said.

"At this point we have to accept the fact that the mountain pine beetle is in Alberta."

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