Invasive beetle destroying New Brunswick’s ash trees – and threatening Mi’kmaq basket making

Written by Oscar Baker

Oscar is an award-winning multimedia reporter from Elsipogtog First Nation and St. Augustine, Fla. Winner of the David Adams Richards award for non-fiction writing for The Violent Ones. Follow him on Twitter @oggycane4lyfe

July 23, 2018

An indiscriminate ash tree killer has been spotted in northern New Brunswick and poses a threat to the province’s entire ash population.   

The emerald ash borer can destroy 99 per cent of an ash tree species which doesn’t bode well for the black ash tree the primary material in Mi’kmaq basket making, and scientists have no sustained success in stopping the Asian beetle.  

“From what we have been told and what we’ve been brought up to speed on, this borer will wipe out the ash in this province,” said Stephen Ginnish, a forestry coordinator with Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Inc. 

The emerald ash borer is native to Asia and was recently discovered in Edmunston by a forestry student. The ash trees in Canada have no natural defense to the bug and the borer disrupts the flow of water throughout the tree killing it in two to three years.  

“Here is another strong threat to another spiritual and cultural species important to the Mi’kmaq people,” said Ginnish. 

Experts believe the borer has been in New Brunswick for at least six years. The borer naturally travels just a few kilometres but can be assisted by human intervention. Stowing away in fire wood and lumber, the borer has been able to travel greater lengths. The bug was first discovered in Canada in Windsor, Ont. and Detroit, MI in 2002 and has spread to 34 U.S. States and four Canadian provinces, Ontario, Manitoba, Quebec and now northern New Brunswick.  

Experts and government agencies are warning the public not to move wood because of the potential threat. “The Department of Energy and Resources encourages all New Brunswickers to help control the spread of emerald ash borer by restricting the movement of potentially infested ash materials such as firewood, ash logs, branches, nursery stock, or chips,” said New Brunswick government spokesperson Jean Bertin.  

Ginnish, from Natoaganeg First Nation, says the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Natural Resources Canada are working to neutralize the threat and inform the public, but efforts seem futile. Insecticides have proven costly and not as effective as some have hoped. There are discussions of introducing exotic wasps, the borers natural predator, but there are fears it may become another invasive species. A fungus was also used with mixed results.   

Natural Resource Canada is also increasing the amount of prism traps, which are purple or green in colour and hung in trees to track the beetles’ movement and range. The traps are scented with a pheromone to attract the borer. And they’re collecting black ash seeds as a contingency plan.   

“Here, 130 generations practiced basket making and it could be gone in the next decade,” said Ginnish.  

He said there’s two million cubic fibre of ash tree on Crown lands or traditional lands and he estimates another two million cubic fibre on private land. Those numbers only include trees that are 10 centimetres in diameter. But Ginnish warns the beetle is also known to attack saplings.   

Ginnish says ash trees stands don’t tend to cover large hectares so planning forestry applications for the trees has proven difficult. “Right now there’s no answers to that.” 

Elsipogtog First Nation recently started an Indigenous tourism trail centered around basket making and keeping the tradition alive and Ginnish said the next part of the plan should include talking with them and other Indigenous basket making artisans.  

“We need to hear from them in order to really understand how this is going to affect them, affect their livelihood and affect their ceremonies and the spirituality around black ash, that’s critically important,” said Ginnish.  

That’s part of the plan at UNB Forestry, according to forestry instructor Kara Constanza. She and colleague Tom

Emerald Ash Borer (photo: Canadian Food Inspection Agency)

Beckley are planning to write a proposal to work closely with Indigenous groups in New Brunswick to plan for the threat. “The earlier you can find the insect the better you can prepare and combat the insect,” said Constanza. 

She is asking people to educate themselves on indicators of the emerald ash borer because that’s been key on early detection in other areas. “The hardest part is that there isn’t much we can do once it’s there, it’s there.”

Some Indigenous tribes in the U.S. have found ways to save the wood for basket making by submerging logs in water and killing the larva. Others have frozen wood for future use. And there is hope that maybe one per cent of the trees is naturally resistant to the borer.  

Constanza said the ash borer can be led away from healthier ash stands by stressing trees. And she said Nova Scotia has catalogued thousands of their ash population and hopes New Brunswick takes on some of that work. 

“I hope New Brunswick does something similar maybe not mapping every tree but looking at where are the dense populations and what the population looks like in this province,.” 




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