08/02/2012 12:23 EDT | Updated 10/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Alberta pine beetles down in some areas, still a problem in others

EDMONTON - Wonky winter weather and the aggressive cutting and burning of infested trees has helped reduce the number of destructive mountain pine beetles in some parts of Alberta.

But the tiny insects remain a growing problem along a sprawling corridor of pine that stretches across the west-central region of the province from the Rocky Mountain foothills east toward Saskatchewan.

Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen said Thursday that Mother Nature and the government's eight-year long, $300 million anti-pine beetle campaign share the credit where the bug numbers are down.

"These findings show we are on the right track and will help us concentrate our ongoing efforts for positive results," McQueen said.

The latest survey report shows beetle numbers dropped in pine forests from the mountain community of Grande Cache to south of Grande Prairie and east to the Slave Lake area.

Forestry experts suspect fluctuating temperatures over the winter in these areas made the bugs more susceptible to dying during sudden cold snaps.

North and south of this region the beetles fared better and may have even increased in number, especially in the Peace River, Edson and Whitecourt regions.

Erica Samis, Alberta's senior forestry health officer, cautioned the anti-beetle fight is not finished by a long shot. She noted populations of the resilient insects could rebound in areas where many died over the winter.

"It is definitely not over. In some of the areas where we had significant beetle mortality, the sheer number of beetles in some of those areas still means we have beetles," Samis said.

"The populations haven't extinguished themselves really anywhere in the province except southwestern Alberta."

The beetles burrow under the bark of pine to lay their eggs and leave fungus that kills the trees, giving pine needles a tell-tale red colour.

Each summer a newly hatched generation of bugs take flight from these dead and dying trees and move east on prevailing winds in search of healthy lodgepole pine.

Scientists fear if the beetles continue spreading east they could jump to jack pine trees and gradually spread east across Canada through the boreal forest.

Alberta estimates up to six million hectares of pine is susceptible to attack, threatening the timber supply that 50 communities depend on. Forestry is a $4 billion industry in the province.

The beetles have ruined billions of dollars worth of pine in British Columbia and ravaged its future timber supply. A report last spring estimated up to 12,000 jobs could be lost in the B.C. forest sector within five years because of the bugs.

Alberta has earmarked $30 million this year for pine beetle control work and another $10 million to reforest areas that have been cut to thwart the spread of the insects.

McQueen said the latest Alberta survey results will help determine where that money will be spent.

"Our strategies are achieving results," she said. "But much work remains to be done to fight this threat against our environment."