The history of bark beetle suppression in North America is being described as a manual of failure that dates back to the 18th century when people first began to battle the insect, according to the author of the newly-published Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug are Killing North America’s Great Forests.
Calgary journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, one of five non-fiction authors shortlisted for the 2011 non-fiction Governor General’s Literary Awards, said recently every effort we’re using in an attempt to control bark beetles has made little or no difference to the overall beetle epidemic that is ravaging North America’s forests.
“I looked at the history of beetle suppression and it is a manual of failure from beginning to end and it is going right back to the 18th century, when German soldiers were being employed in the forest to cut down spruce trees attacked by bark beetles.
“We’ve tried electrocution and we’ve tried explosive devices. We’ve tried drowning. We’ve tried to gas trees. We’ve tried thinning forests. In a huge epidemic, none of that makes a difference. It is a futile effort,” said Nikiforuk, who will be at Willock and Sax Gallery in Banff as part of the 2011 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival for a reading, question-and-answer and book signing Saturday (Nov. 5) from 6-7:30 p.m.
The battle in North America against the beetle is being used in the hopes it will stop or at least slow the rice-sized insects, which have munched their way through more than 30 billion pine trees across Western Canada and the Western U.S. since the 1980s; destroying forests and communities reliant on those trees.
While a vast amount of money and resources is thrown into the battle, the beetles are doing exactly what they are designed to do – weed out old and unhealthy trees – which helps to keep forests healthy. But our long history of meddling in natural processes, including fire suppression and now climate change, have created ideal conditions for beetle outbreaks.
But are we willing to listen to the lessons the bark beetles can teach us?
“I don’t think there is any province yet that has sat down and said ‘this beetle is telling us we can’t have a big concentrated industry in our forest, that we need to have a much a smaller industry, it needs to be community-based, it needs to be more resilient and in our forest planning we need to leave room for both fire and insects,’” Nikiforuk said.
“We can’t allocate everything to suit our own needs and when we do, we’re going to be defeated and it is going to cost us mightily. An old forest is like an old aging financial system, they have lost their variance and small, improbable characters will bring them down.”
One of the systems beetles are bringing down are stands of long-lived and ecologically important whitebark pine that typically grow at high elevations and, as Nikiforuk writes, “glues together the alpine world and nourishes a remarkable community of animals and people.” The high-energy whitebark pine seeds are an important food source for grizzly bears, Clark’s nutcrackers, squirrels and people.
With rising temperatures and no fire, whitebark pine, a key-note species which also helps to keep soil, snow and moisture in the alpine, has become susceptible to bark beetles, and the result has been devastating. By 2010, researchers in the Greater Yellowstone region reported mountain pine beetles had killed more than half of the whitebark pine. In B.C., it’s even worse: 85 per cent of whitebark pine has died.
“Who knows where we go from here?” Nikiforuk said. “Climate change is going to bring us more unpredictability and volatility and that is going to affect all of us and small and improbable characters on the landscape are going respond to climate change in ways that we never predicted or anticipated.
Empire of the Beetle is a remarkable and powerful book. Nikiforuk’s thorough research and engaging style has pieced together a story that is both bizarre and frightening. It is heartbreaking to see the devastation bark beetles have unleashed on North America, but it is hard to pin this on the beetles.
Therein lies the most depressing part of this book – the constant reminder that we have done a beautiful job of providing the beetles with a sumptuous feast that may not end for some time.
Clearly, human folly is more to blame than the beetle.
“It’s important to remember,” Nikiforuk writes, “the experts point out that when beetles storm castles across a landscape, they are sending two crucial messages. The first is that change is not gradual. Big systems don’t fail slowly or fall apart in straight lines; they unexpectedly crash and burn. The second is that ‘insects are only what we see in the forest,’ advises Diana Six (entomologist and pathologist at University of Montana). ‘They are just responding to signals. They are not the cause. They are finishing the trees off. But the trees are being set up for them.’”
Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America’s Great Forests, published by Greystone Books, retails for $19.95.