Backlog of trees with Dutch elm disease is growing


More than 7,200 trees in the city have been marked for death due to Dutch elm disease this year, making it the deadliest year for elm trees Winnipeg has seen since the mid-1990s, according to city forester Martha Barwinsky.

That number is expected to rise over the coming days as the city wraps up elm tree inspections by the end of the week.

“This year we’re seeing a significant increase and we expect those numbers to continue to rise. This is a turning point for us. We need to remove the backlog of diseased trees,” Barwinsky said.

If the current trend isn’t reversed and elm trees continue to be lost at the same rate – or, potentially, at a quicker pace – Barwinsky said there’s a risk the city could lose the entirety of its elm tree canopy.

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More than 7,200 trees in the city have been marked for death due to Dutch elm disease this year, making it the deadliest year for elm trees Winnipeg has seen since the mid-1990s, according to city forester Martha Barwinsky.

That number is expected to rise over the coming days as the city wraps up elm tree inspections by the end of the week.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>A diseased and dying elm tree waits for the chain saw in Woseley.</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A diseased and dying elm tree waits for the chain saw in Woseley.

“This year we’re seeing a significant increase and we expect those numbers to continue to rise. This is a turning point for us. We need to remove the backlog of diseased trees,” Barwinsky said.

If the current trend isn’t reversed and elm trees continue to be lost at the same rate – or, potentially, at a quicker pace – Barwinsky said there’s a risk the city could lose the entirety of its elm tree canopy.

“There’s a risk of that, yes. We’re looking at 8,200 or 8,300 trees with the backlog. We’ve had an increase in the backlog of trees as more and more of them are left standing for one or two seasons,” she continued.

“It’s all compounding. With this trend going on, as we can’t keep up, it will just continue to compound and the situation will get worse. The snowball is getting bigger.”

Winnipeg is home to the largest standing population of adult American elm trees on the continent, with more than 230,000. But that population is under serious threat as the city’s urban forestry department simply doesn’t have the resources needed to fight the spread of the disease, according to Barwinsky, who added that the situation is getting worse.

Over the past five years the city has sustained high numbers of trees identified as diseased – on average 5,600 per year. But Barwinsky said she doesn’t consider this year’s spike to be an anomaly and expects to see the numbers continue to rise.

The increase in trees marked for death also leads to an increase in the backlog of diseased trees left standing, as city employees scramble to keep up. There are currently 821 diseased elms marked in 2015 and 2016 that need to be cut down.

By the end of the week Barwinsky expects there to be more than 8,400 standing trees in the city marked as diseased.

In response to this crisis the urban forestry department has rerouted resources from other services, such as tree planting, to focus on the removal of diseased elms – a tactic Barwinsky admits is “concerning,” even if necessary.

Employees have also been removing diseased trees all year long, as opposed to the regular six-month removal season, but still the situation continues to worsen.

They were allotted $4.28 million to combat Dutch elm disease this year, but Barwinsky said the department would need double that amount to get the situation back under control.

“We’d need about double our funding, yes. I’m always hopeful, but I realize city council has a lot of very difficult decisions to make. But we need to get caught up so that we can go back to providing the service levels that we want and we need additional resources to be able to do that,” she said.

An additional $380,000 in funding was approved by the city’s standing policy committee last week, but even with that influx of money Barwinsky said the department is expecting to overspend by at least $680,000 this fiscal year.

One way to combat the problem would be to implement a rapid removal program for diseased trees. The city rolled out a rapid removal pilot project in 2013, but it was not continued.

“The project cost about $1.9 million in 2013, and in 2014 we had a reduction in the number of diseased trees. We can’t say it was because of the one year of rapid removal, because there’s just too many variables involved. But after 2014 we started seeing spikes again,” Barwinsky said.

Other concerns moving forward are the dense monocultures of trees that exist throughout the city, particularly in many older neighbourhoods, as well as the inevitable arrival of the Emerald ash borer beetle.

And once the beetle is here, it’s here to stay. After its arrival the best the city will be able to do is manage the mortality rate of ash trees, as the beetle cannot be eradicated.

That means the introduction of the beetle has the potential to cause the death of all ash trees in Winnipeg, which Barwinsky estimates makes up about 25 to 30 per cent of the city’s total tree canopy.

“We’ve been expecting it (Emerald ash borer beetle) every year. All through the summer I’m waiting for the phone call. Just because we haven’t found it yet doesn’t mean it’s not already here. It could already be here, as it’s very difficult to detect,” she said.

A major concern for the city’s urban forestry department is that if they don’t get the Dutch elm disease situation under control before the arrival of the Emerald ash borer beetle, the limited and insufficient resources they currently have will be divided even further. ”As I said before this is a turning point for us. We need to remove that backlog in a timely manner, plus we’re on our way well past 7,200 trees that have been marked this year. The numbers keep going up. We need to stop the increase. We’re at a crticial point here and need to reverse the trend.”

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca



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