while city staff are praying that the swath of trees felled so far in the northwest end will be enough to stop the spread of the Asian Longhorned Beetle, there's growing evidence the infestation could have been avoided.
In fact, city council was warned of the Asian Longhorned Beetle's arrival in a staff report back in 2000. In that report, council was urged to push the feds and the province to improve monitoring practices.
"We wanted to send a message that this is going to be an ongoing problem," says the city's chief forester, Richard Ubbens. "But cities aren't in the habit of putting aside money for an emergency that might not happen."
The council of the day did embark on a public education program, but it did not take steps to develop an emergency response plan of its own - even though the beetle had been discovered in a shipping crate from China in nearby Waterloo. And the report warned that eradicating an infestation could cost millions of dollars, not including the $1,000 it would cost to replace each affected city tree.
As soon as Ontario's first Asian Longhorned Beetle was discovered, the feds hit China and Hong Kong with an enhanced border protocol requiring all their wood shipments to come with a certificate proving they've been fumigated or heat-treated. In January, this requirement will be extended to cover all countries except the U.S.
But council wasn't the only level of government that ignored warnings. Provincial and federal biocontrol research programs have been virtually dismantled, and cuts to the staff who monitor infestations at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources have been so deep that if it weren't for the keen eye of one resident, we still might not know we had a problem.
The lack of monitoring staff, says Ontario Urban Forest Council executive director Jack Radecki, has undermined efforts to determine just how widespread the beetle infestation is and forced the cutting of hundreds more trees - all those within a minimum 400 metres of infested trees - than would otherwise be necessary.
"We're removing trees simply because we can't survey enough to find the beetle," says Radecki, whose group was sounding the warning bell six years ago. "I'd hoped there would be some prevention or control program in place by now."
The Longhorned Beetle (Anoplophora glabripennis) has no natural predators in North America. It kills trees, especially maples, elms and willows. Currently, there is an infestation of the beetles in the Hwy 407 and Hwy 400 area northwest of Toronto. The city's map of the damage shows pockets of affected trees so far in a number of neighbourhoods, at least one park and bordering a number of ravine systems.
The only way to eradicate a local infestation is to cut down and destroy affected trees. The cities of Vaughan and Toronto began cutting trees on public property on November 17. Trees on private property will be spared till spring, as the beetle is inactive in winter.
Ken Marchant, network specialist, forestry and nursery, with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, told NOW back in November that there is no truly effective pesticide that can be used against the beetles. The CFIA has been working to get emergency registration of the chemical imidacloprid, which appears to be having at least some preventive effect in Chicago. Along with New York, Chicago has been dealing with Asian Longhorned Beetles since 1999. The CFIA plans to inject imidacloprid under trees adjacent to areas infected by the insects.
Tree-cutting is highly visible, thus likely to raise public ire. But what about imidacloprid?
It is toxic. Imicide (a brand name) comes with the warning that it's "harmful if swallowed or absorbed through the skin."
Imidacloprid has only a 30 to 70 per cent success rate in killing off insects and is ineffective once the larvae are deep inside trees. It is also harmful to birds and other benign insect species such as bees. In France, it killed grey partridges after being applied to farmland. It destroys earthworms and is harmful in varying degrees to a host of other invertebrate species.
Not all targeted insects die from applications of imidacloprid, and the survivors can pass survival traits to the next generation, raising the spectre of strains of super-beetles requiring ever more toxic substances to kill. The pesticide is weakly mutagenic and has caused changes in chromosomes in human lymphocytes. It has been found to cause problems in hamster ovary cells. Kittens exposed to five times the recommended dosage of a commercial version of imidacloprid, marketed under the trade name Advantage to kill fleas, suffered lack of coordination, coma and death.
Doses used on beetle-infested trees will be far lower than those producing most problems in selected animal studies, but the chemical has never been tested on the vast majority of wildlife species native to our region. What level of toxin is acceptable?
"Asian Longhorned Beetle" is hardly a household term yet, but according to Jon Bell of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the problem of invasive species has barely begun.
The current crisis, he says, is just the tip of an iceberg that features the ominously named Sudden Oak Death, a fungal infection that is well-established in California. This year it was found in a rhododendron in a BC nursery.
Already, we don't allow potentially contaminated soil or oak products from California into the country. But as we struggle to deal with the invader we've got, is enough being done to prevent the next crisis?
"If this beetle establishes (itself) in the East, it will cause untold damage," says Bell. "It will change the face of the North American forest."
With files from Barry Kent MacKay