Don’t panic, but prepare

Assessing another possible spruce budworm outbreak

Andrew Wagstaff
Published on April 14, 2014

Craig Tupper, a registered professional forester with Athol Forestry Co-operative Ltd., checks up on a balsam fir forest in the Parrsboro area. While Nova Scotia is not yet experiencing a return of the spruce budworm outbreak that caused heavy damage in the 1970s and ‘80s, he warned that it is a real possibility and landowners should be prepared.

Andrew Wagstaff - cumberlandnewsnow

It is not a time for panic, but forestry experts are encouraging landowners to prepare for a possible return of the spruce budworm epidemic that caused turmoil here in the 1970s and ‘80s.

PARRSBORO – Quebec has been dealing with an outbreak since 2007, and signs show that it is encroaching into northern New Brunswick. Nova Scotia is seeing increased moth counts in Cumberland and Colchester counties as well as in Cape Breton, following a similar pattern to the previous outbreak between 1974-1988, according to Craig Tupper a registered professional forester with Athol Forestry Co-Operative Ltd.

“Outbreaks are cyclical and occur every 30-40 years, which means we are on borrowed time,” he said. “But, we also have less balsam fir than we did 35 years ago, which is a good thing.”

Balsam fir is the food of choice for the spruce budworm, which wreaked havoc on the Nova Scotia forestry industry over nearly a decade during its last outbreak, resulting in the defoliation of nearly 1.22 million hectares of softwood at its peak.

John Ross, manager of risk services and forest protection for the Nova Scotia department of natural resources, confirmed that budworm counts have been increasing slightly here since 2011, but said it is too early to tell how bad an outbreak might be.

“Right now we’ve increased the amount of sampling we do, to try and get a better handle on the population,” said Ross. “We now have computer models and technology we can use to try and predict what the population will do. Over the next year or so, we’re going to develop those models so we can try and predict how bad the outbreak might be.

“We’re very early in the stages, and it’s too soon to tell if things are going to get really bad or not,” added Ross, who said Nova Scotia is probably two to five years away from seeing any damage from the budworm.

Ross believes the province is better prepared this time around for an outbreak, thanks to technological advances, and more mixed forests.

Tupper, however, pointed out that there has been a large decline in infrastructure here since the 1980s.

“There is a serious lack of forestry contractors with modern equipment that could handle salvaging damaged timber, there are fewer mills available to process the wood created, and woodland owners are increasingly disengaged with their holdings,” he said.

In western Cumberland County alone several large commercial sawmills have shuttered their operations since the 1990s, from the Scott Paper sawmill in Parrsboro to the Harrison’s mill in Halfway River and the Hoeg mill in Athol.

There are also fewer aircraft to take part in spraying programs, and fewer dollars in the provincial coffers to undertake a reactive strategy, according to Tupper.

“This does not mean it’s time to panic; it’s still early,” he assured. “It’s time to be proactive. Woodlot owners should be aware of the species and ages of the trees on their woodlot and talk to a forest professional about the potential risks to their land.”

Depending on age and composition of your forest, methods of mitigating the impact of a potential outbreak include silvicultural treatments or taking part in a provincially administered aerial spraying program.

“The biggest risk is waiting to do anything,” said Tupper. “If we fail to prepare, the impact could be worse than the last outbreak due to the recent decline in the forest industry.”

While private landowners probably won’t see the budworm, Ross said they should keep a close eye on their forests. Meanwhile, he said the department would continue to monitor the situation and keep them informed as best as it can.

Cape Breton would be most vulnerable to an outbreak, but the northern counties of Cumberland, Colchester, Pictou and Antigonish would also be susceptible to damage, according to Ross.

Twitter: @ADNandrew