The Canadian Rockies is being decimated by an invasive insect that has attacked and killed more than 16million hectares of forest in the region, an area twice the size of Scotland.
The mountain pine beetle has turned large swathes of the Canadian national park’s dense green pine forests brown with dead trees, threatening the picture-postcard appearance of one of the world’s most impressive mountain ranges.
Jasper National Park, at the north end of the scenic Icefields Parkway and a key tourist destination in the Rockies, is set to lose 163,000 hectares of forest, according to Parks Canada, with some trees already reduced to needles and others destined to turn.
“[The appearance of the Rockies] has already changed, now people’s view of the forest might change,” said Nadir Erbilgin, assistant professor in forest entomology at the University of Alberta, “The beetles spread through the natural corridors, the valleys; you can see the fatalities coming.
“I really doubt that you will have uniform pine forest any more - that was a result of experimental failures; that wasn’t really natural. The forest may no longer look sexy or beautiful, but nevertheless you will see other plant species come through.”
Native to North American forests, the mountain pine beetle had not caused trouble until an outbreak in the Nineties that spread through 50 per cent of commercial lodgepole pine in British Columbia. The insect, which attacks live trees by laying eggs under the bark, mining the phloem and choking the circulation, has since spread north and east, destroying boreal forests in its path.
It was during a 2006 epidemic that the mountain pine beetle left British Columbia and began devastating trees in some of the most popular tourist areas of the Rockies, in Alberta. While there is concern about the economic impact to the logging industry, as well as the increased risk of wildfire and damage caused by falling trees, the epidemics have the potential to damage the Canadian Rockies’ reputation for natural beauty.
“The impact of mountain pine beetle is something Jasperites, and all residents of communities surrounded by boreal forest, have had to get used to,” said Bob Covey, editor of news site The Jasper Local. “While it's easy to say the dead trees are unsightly, I think most community members look at it from a different perspective. Of foremost concern is the wildfire hazard the dry, dead pine trees pose.”
The spread of the insect throughout the forests of the Rockies has been aided by decades of fire management, halting the natural evolution of the ecosystem and allowing more elderley pines - more susceptible to the beetle - to survive. Rising temperatures, too, mean that the beetle is no longer killed off each year by long, brutal winters.
In addition to a greater fire risk, something the forestry commission must tackle by thinning out buffer zones of forest, there is research being conducted into the impact on the weakened forests’ ability to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
Both Covey and Nadir Erbilgin are keen to stress, however, that though not pretty, the mountain pine beetle epidemic is part of the natural travails of a forest.
“While we may find mountain pine beetle ultimately has an effect on tourism, I think most visitors to Jasper will be interested to know that it is a naturally occurring part of the forest life cycle,” said Covey.
“And life will continue to flourish in Jasper National Park. New flora will grow as the pine stands' dense canopy gradually disappears, bird life and mammals will adapt to a changing forest and people will still explore the valleys and rivers and lakes and alpine environments with wonder.”
Hope and concern currently reside in the region in equal measure; a recent cold snap is thought to have led to the first decline in mountain pine beetle populations in six years, yet Saskatchewan, the province to the east of Alberta, believes it will likely be hit too by the plague soon enough. And it certainly is not yet finished with the Rockies.
Commenting on last month’s report from National Resources Canada, Allan Carrol, a professor of insect ecology at the University of British Columbia, told CBC this was a chance to “kick [the beetles] while they’re down”, adding: “We have to remain vigilant. We can't just sit back and say it's done and there's no more mountain pine beetle."
Either way, Covey is confident the environmental wonders of Jasper and the Canadian Rockies will continue to attract travellers from around the world.
“Yes, the pine beetle killed forest is less aesthetically pleasing than a green, lush one, but the mono culture of pine we see in this area of the Rockies was always going to be susceptible to infestation,” he said.
“Will tourists decide they don't like the look and stay away? That remains to be seen. But if they do, they'll be missing out on seeing the next evolution of an incredible ecosystem.”
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