Saskatchewan pilots join Quebec foresters in fight to halt spruce budworm

Throughout June and early July, the airport in Mont-Joli, Que., buzzed with activity, as a pair of planes owned by a Yorkton, Sask., company carried out targeted spray operations to control the larvae eating through some of Canada's most valuable forests.

Aerial spraying of microbe toxic only to larvae saves foliage, 'brings Eastern and Western Canada together'

Michael Yaholnitsky is the president of Miccar Aerial Applicators, the Yorkton, Sask., company whose planes took part in SOPFIM operations to halt the spread of the spruce budworm. (Julia Caron/CBC)

Canada's political leaders could learn a thing or two about interprovincial co-operation from the pilots helping to save Quebec's most valuable forests from the scourge of the spruce budworm.

Throughout June and early July, the airport in Mont-Joli, in Quebec's Lower Saint Lawrence region, buzzed with activity, as five specially equipped planes conducted targeted spray operations, beginning as soon as dawn broke each morning.

"When the buds start opening on the tree, we have to be out there spraying," said pilot Kevin Labrecque.

Labrecque spent five weeks conducting aerial spraying in Quebec, far from his home in Battleford, Sask., flying one of two planes owned by Miccar Aerial Applicators, a company based in Yorkton, Sask.

"There's not too many people in Canada who get to do the work that we do," he said.

"You fly along different places and you think: no one else, not one other human has seen it from where you're looking at it from," said Labrecque. "It's pretty neat."

'There's not too many people in Canada who get to do the work that we do,' said Kevin Labreque, an agricultural spray pilot from Battleford, Sask. who spent five weeks based in Mont-Joli, Que. (Julia Caron/CBC)

Race to save foliage

Quebec's Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks Ministry set aside $33 million this spring to spray 456,000 hectares of endangered white spruce and balsam fir trees in four regions — Quebec's North Shore, Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean, the Lower Saint Lawrence, and the Gaspé Peninsula and Magdalen Islands.

The goal is to preserve at least half of the annual foliage of the species most susceptible to the spruce budworm's devastation.

"It's like trying to stop the snow from falling," said Robert Chénard, head of base operations at Mont-Joli for SOPFIM, a private, non-profit organization founded in 1990 to protect Quebec forests from insects and diseases.

Chénard has spent his career fighting spruce budworm infestations, which are cyclical, with outbreaks occurring about every 30 to 40 years. The larvae eat away at a tree's uppermost foliage, killing the tree within five years.

Robert Chénard, head of base operations at the Mont-Joli airport for SOPFIM, points out which forests have been designated for protection. (Julia Caron/CBC)

The infestation Chénard is now leading the fight against began in 2006, but he still recalls the last one, which began in 1967 and didn't die away until 1992.

"The technology has evolved a lot," says Chénard.

Global positioning systems and precision spray heads affixed to the planes' wings help target the use of pesticides, he said. Chénard and his team can monitor spraying in real time, from computer screens at their base camp.

Five planes owned by Miccar Aerial Applicators took part in this year's $33-million operation to spray areas where the spruce budworm has already caused moderate to serious defoliation. (Julia Caron/CBC)

Forestry, sawmill jobs at stake

The pesticide is a microbe naturally found in soil, called Bacillus thuringiensis (BT), that's harmless to birds, fish and mammals, but toxic to the larvae of butterflies and moths.

The biggest concern to people living near the Mont-Joli airport was noise, Chénard said.

"It's the summertime. It's hot. People have their windows open … and we take off quite early in the morning."

However, people who live so close to nature appreciate SOPFIM's efforts to save their forests from further defoliation, he said.

"They know we are doing this so they can enjoy that nature," Chénard said.

"We want to protect it."

This blue spruce is one of the species attacked by the spruce budworm. (Julia Caron/CBC)

It's impossible to eradicate the spruce budworm, as it's existed in Eastern Canadian forests for thousands of years. However, there are forestry and sawmill jobs at stake.

"The plantations are the future of the industry here," says Chénard. "We'll try to save it. We'll save it, but it's costly."

"This is a great preservation of assets for the province," says Michael Yaholnitsky, the president of Yorkton-based Miccar Aerial and the base manager for the Mont-Joli operation, "and it really brings Eastern and Western Canada together."


  • An earlier version of this story said all five planes involved in the Mont-Joli spraying operation are owned by Miccar Aerial Applicators. In fact, three of those planes are owned by Helico Service Inc., based in Rougement, Que. The Miccar planes were subcontracted to Helico for the duration of the five-week aerial spraying operation.
    Jul 15, 2019 2:48 PM ET


Julia Caron


Julia Caron is a journalist, radio-maker and art lover based in Quebec City. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Julia has lived in over a dozen military towns growing up. She has called Quebec City home since 2008, and proudly calls herself a franglophone (yes, it's a thing).

With files from Canadian Press


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