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Beetles, forests and climate change: Exchanging old mistakes for new?

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Point Pleasant Park in Halifax. Photo: J.Elliott/Flickr

Many sectors of Canadian society are still in shock, reeling from the recent budget cutbacks announced by the Harper Conservatives. The CBC, the National Film Board, Elections Canada, Canadian Border Services, Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, Veterans Affairs and Fisheries and Oceans have all been slashed.

While the government has said it will cut 20,000 public sector jobs, the CCPA estimates that given the multiplier effect, the total job loss could be as high as 72,000 by 2014-15. The CCPA has estimated that 3,500 public sector jobs will be lost in Atlantic Canada, and that doesn't include the multiplier effect. Citizens continue to struggle to understand how the fabric of Canadian society will be affected since Treasury Board president Tony Clement has said that the full picture of which programs and personnel have been eliminated will not be fully known until the spring of 2013.

One department hit hard is Environment Canada, particularly its programs to monitor climate and environmental change. The National Round Table on the Environment is being eliminated. The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), perhaps the single-most important research facility in the world in monitoring climate and environmental change in the high arctic (run, in part, by Dalhousie University researchers) is permanently closing as a result of funding cuts.

These cuts come on top of earlier cuts announced in August 2011 that slashed $222.2 million in spending and eliminated 1,211 jobs resulting in the elimination of the Clean Air Agenda, Air Quality Health Index and Species at Risk programs. Researchers in the areas of climate change and clean air were cut in half, and the current round of funding cuts will reduce these even further.

Another agency hard hit is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which has been told to cut 308 positions and $56.1 million from its budget over three years. Despite Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz's assurances that these layoffs will not affect the health and safety of Canadians, concern has focused around food safety as up to 100 food inspectors are expected to be laid off.

However, the CBC has recently learned, from representatives of the Agriculture Union of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (which represents CFIA employees), of another cut that will affect Nova Scotia. According to the union, all the staff of Brown Spruce Longhorn Beetle (BSLB) monitoring and containment program that has been underway in the province for the last 12 years have been laid off. Is this a threat to Nova Scotia forests or a smart cost-saving measure?

Let's take a step back. The BSLB hit the national stage in 2000 with its discovery in Point Pleasant Park in Halifax. Amid massive controversy, the CFIA planned to cut down much of the park until public outcry and a court injunction by the Friends of Point Pleasant Park (FPPP) forced them to moderate their stance and limit the cut.

Over the last 12 years millions of dollars (precisely how much is difficult to discern) have been spent on research, monitoring, quarantine, eradication and containment efforts, measures that have had a significant impact on many property owners, small woodlot operators, sawmills and others whose livelihood has been impacted by the CFIA sanctions and attempts to "contain" the insect (which has now been found at sites in much of central Nova Scotia from Halifax to Lunenburg to Pictou, and on Cape Breton Island).

Despite this effort and expenditure, the CFIA have never answered a fundamental question: is the BSLB even a pest worth worrying about? Why? Because the CFIA have never asked it. They have never commissioned the relatively simple and inexpensive scientific trials that would be required.

In the briefest of possible nutshells: the BSLB is without doubt an alien species, but this doesn't necessarily imply that it is an invasive one. Only a very small proportion of the former become the latter. On its home ground in Europe it is not invasive and there are many scientific reasons to believe that it is behaving no differently in Nova Scotia.

There and here they feed on dying trees that have reached a certain stage of ill health where they are colonized by various wood and bark boring insects -- part of the natural process of decay in forests. In Nova Scotia they feed almost exclusively on red spruce. All investigators now agree that:

1. Brown spruce longhorn beetles do not attack healthy red spruce.

2. If a tree becomes of sufficiently ill health, BSLB's will feed on it.

The essential question becomes: is that level of ill health any different than is the case for the many native wood and bark boring insects found in our forests? If so, then the BSLB could be considered a pest. If not, then it has simply joined an already existing suite of insects that -- from an ecological perspective -- do exactly what the BSLB does -- help in the natural processes of decay, decomposition and nutrient recycling in forests.

The CFIA decided at the outset to regard the BSLB as an invasive species, and there's been no attempt to provide evidence that this is actually so. A first and central principle of risk assessment must be to actually determine if there is a risk.

With the elimination of the CFIA's BSLB program, where does that leave Nova Scotia forests? It is important to continue to fund monitoring of introduced species and research related to biocontrol and containment measures for bona fide invasive species. However, in the case of the BSLB the CFIA never undertook this research, in the face of considerable evidence that they are not substantively different from native longhorn beetles.

Consequently, there's no evidence that biocontrol, containment, eradication or quarantine measures were ever warranted. Given the fact FPPP, the Ecology Action Centre, Eastern Shore Forestry Watchand others have been calling on the CFIA to conduct such studies for 12 years, it's hard to feel sympathy for the CFIA for not having done so -- they certainly had ample urging and time to do so.

There is another important dimension to this issue. Last fall I testified before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development about the intersection between climate change and invasive species. Since the 1960s, forest biologists have been documenting the decline in health and vigor of red spruce. In some stands in northern New England, 30-60 per cent mortality of red spruce has been observed and the vigor of surviving trees is diminished.

In the Maritime Provinces there are similar concerns. In one important study in New England, investigators determined that climatic factors -- unusually warm summers followed by unusual cold snaps during the winter -- are important factors responsible for this decline. Such increasingly pronounced fluctuations in weather are precisely what are predicted to occur in the course of climate change.

Consequently, as climate change proceeds, red spruce in Eastern Canada may be further affected by such weather fluctuations and may suffer corresponding declines in health and vigour. If this comes to pass, we may see a further deterioration of red spruce in the coming decades -- one that is not caused by an invasive species, but by climate change itself. Thus, the BSLB may simply be a symptom of the problem -- not its cause.

The Climate Change Action Network called the cutbacks in Jim Flaherty's budget "a fierce blow to environmental protection in Canada." At a time when Canada ought to be ramping up research into climate change, its effects and possible remediation strategies, the federal government is instead actively undermining our capacity to do so.

Christopher Majka is a biologist, environmentalist, policy analyst and arts advocate. He is Chair of the Nova Scotia Cultural Action Network and a member of the Project Democracy team. This article was first posted on Behind the Numbers.

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