Western Canadian pine beetle infestation spreads

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Voracious beetles that have ravaged more than 9 million hectares (35,000 square miles) of British Columbia’s forests have wiped out about 40 percent of the infested region’s marketable pine trees, according to a report released on Monday.

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The pine beetle infestation has spread unabated for eight years and unless weather conditions change to keep the tiny bugs in check, the amount of trees killed by 2015 in Canada’s largest lumber exporting province will likely reach about 1 billion cubic meters (35.3 billion cubic feet), according to a provincial analysis.

The report estimated that at least 530 million cubic meters of wood has already been killed, which is about 12 percent of the western province’s total supply of salable pine -- a key softwood construction lumber.

But the report by British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests said the number of trees killed annually appears to be declining as susceptible trees die off, and the infestation rate may return to pre-outbreak levels by 2015.

The insects have lived on lodgepole and ponderosa pine in Western Canada for thousands of years, but nature has controlled

major outbreaks by killing the beetles through extreme winter cold or with forest fires.

The area has not had the required cold snap in recent years, and efforts to fight fires to protect the timber supply and area communities have increased the number of older trees, which are more susceptible to an insect attack.

Trees killed by the beetles can be harvested for several years after they have died, but the provincial researchers said that more needs to be known about how long that wait can be.

The report said that, based on current assumptions on sawlog shelf-life, some areas of the province now hit by the infestation could see a decline in timber supply within four or five years.

The drier dead trees are subject to more cracking, which reduces the amount of timber and plywood that can be produced from each log.

The beetle infestation has continued to move eastward toward Alberta. Provincial officials there plan a major forest burn-off this fall in areas near the border in hopes of stopping the insects from crossing the continental divide.