In the blink of an eye

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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There’s not much difference along the edge of the Alberta Trans-Canada Highway yet, not heading north through the grasslands and the huge fenced blocks of grazing land.

The grasses are all straw-yellow and knocked down, and you can imagine that if you stopped your car and walked over to them, there would be the same winter trails left by mice and voles that you find in Newfoundland pasture right now — the collapsed, under-snow trails of busy rodents, the same broken stalks and long, tangled runways of small, busy creatures trying to survive through the winter.

It’s been a little easier to survive Alberta winters lately, and as you head into the foothills of the Rockies, you quickly see the signs of other burrowing creatures — but for these, you don’t even have to stop the car.

Lodgepole pine woods are a different, more diffident kind of forest than we’re used to in this province. Here, spruce and fir often start out as a competitive thicket, a whole group of seedlings growing up and through each other, the successful ones reaching up into the sunlight, the unsuccessful either stunted or choked out altogether.

The lodgepoles are less familiar, growing up a distance apart from each other so that the woods have a strange ordered formality to them, like the whole thing was laid out and then planted with space and a diffident kind of politeness in mind. It’s an open and quiet forest, the kind of place that holds quiet like it was caught in the palm of a hand, open enough that you often see movement out of the corner of your eye long before you hear it.

But lodgepole is certainly under threat — as soon as you’re into the foothills, you start to see the rusty-red vertical flame of suddenly dead lodgepoles, and you see lots and lots of them, all victims of a different kind of burrower. Not mice or voles, but insects, mountain pine beetles, are working their way beneath the bark and killing trees from the inside out.

The beetles’ current rampage could be described as a combination of our own success and failure: we’ve been successful at limiting forest fires, so older lodgepoles — a prime food source — are more available. And since global warming has meant the rise of winter temperatures, the beetles no longer face the sustained -30 C temperatures that used to limit their numbers. More beetles has meant a move into younger trees as well as their older neighbours.

In B.C., the devastation is on a larger scale, but even on the Alberta side of the Rockies, the damage is downright obvious, and not only that, newly obvious in only the last five years or so. This spring, you can pick the dying trees out by the hundreds, often like rust-red polka-dots right across blocks of green-shouldered timber.

And if that’s not bad enough, scientists now say that the beetles have found a taste for a new species — jack pine, a boreal species that stretches pretty much across Canada.

It’s funny how quickly things change: five years ago, the last time I was in Alberta for an extended period of time, it was the receding Rockie Mountain glaciers that caught the most attention.

Back then, you could think about that change under a canopy of lodgepole, feeling the heat of an Alberta summer day and smelling the intoxicating, faintly musky-dirt smell of the pine sap as thing as incense in the air. That experience is not gone, but like the glaciers, it is much diminished.

It kind of makes you wonder what changes are in store for us in the next few years, and whether we can expect that kind of sudden and dramatic change in our neck of the woods as well. Five years is not a long time — and believe me, this is a lot of change.

 

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Alberta Trans-Canada Highway

Geographic location: Alberta, Rockies, Newfoundland

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