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In Mi’kma’ki, fighting to save the hemlock ‘grandmothers’ from a deadly pest

Ninety per cent of the hemlock trees in Nova Scotia could disappear. A Mi’kmaq-led effort is ensuring at least one forest will survive

When Chris Googoo first visited Wapane’kati, the old-growth eastern hemlock forest at Asitu’lɨsk, it was like stepping back in time. In his imagination, he saw the forest by Pijinuiskaq, the river of long branches, also known as the LeHave River, where the Mi’kmaq lived for thousands of years.

“It’s awe-inspiring,” Googoo, chief operating officer for Ulnooweg, said. The towering trees were a stark contrast to those elsewhere in Nova Scotia, where less than one per cent of the province is covered in old-growth forests. “Along the Trans Canada Highway, with these little trees that have been harvested by the lumber industry over the years, there is no old growth that we see, even near our own communities.”

An upward view of the trees of Wapane’kati, in Asitu’lɨsk.
The forest of Wapane’kati is 400 years old, and a majority of the trees have never been cut or impacted by industry.

Ulnooweg, a Mi’kmaq-led charity, is a steward of the hemlocks surrounding Asitu’lɨsk, a land-based educational, cultural and healing centre, one hour west of Halifax.

Previously Asitu’lɨsk was known as Windhorse Farm, which was privately owned by the Drescher family. Before that, the 200-acre forest was owned for 150 years by members of the Wentzell family, who first settled in the area in 1840. The Wentzells and Dreschers protected the forest from clear-cut logging and practiced sustainable farming and forestry. 

A view of the LeHave River, which borders the forest of Wapane’kati.
The LeHave River, called Pijinuiskaq by the Mi’kmaq, has been an important hub for thousands of years.

After an estate planning lawyer introduced the Dreschers to Googoo, they began to share cross-cultural ecological knowledge with each other and became friends.

“We learned a lot on both sides,” said Googoo. “It didn’t take me long to say, ‘I really want to invest in this place.’ ”

In 2021, the Drescher family sold the property at a deep discount to the Mi’kmaq, where it remains under the care of Ulnooweg. 

In 2022, with the guidance of Mi’kmaq language experts, Windhorse Farm was renamed Asitu’lisk, meaning “that which gives you balance.”

For the Mi’kmaq, Asitu’lisk is a place to learn and heal, one that will be protected and stewarded for future generations. But in 2022, a threat emerged that has endangered this irreplaceable forest.

An old red building at the entrance to Asitu’lɨsk, with a sign in the foreground that welcomes visitors.
Located on the shore of Atuomkuk (Wentzell Lake) in the Pijnuiskaq watershed, Asitu’lɨsk has been an important site for the Mi’kmaq for thousands of years.

An invasive species reaches Nova Scotia, threatening hemlocks

In fall 2022, neighbours of Asitu’lɨsk found hemlock woolly adelgid (often referred to as HWA) on their private land and alerted Ulnooweg.

Scientifically known as Adelges tsugae, the aphid-like insects are about the size of a poppy seed and produce cotton-like egg sacs that are three-to-six millimetres wide, which are laid at the base of hemlock needles. The insects feed off hemlock sap, which holds the tree’s nutrients, until the trees die.

An educational sign greeting visitors at  Wapane’kati asks them to be aware of the hemlock woolly adelgid
The hemlock woolly adelgid has spread rapidly across Nova Scotia since it was first detected in 2017.

Originally found in East Asia, hemlock woolly adelgid was first detected in North America in 1951, in Virginia. The insects reproduce asexually, and in North America all are egg-laying females. Hemlock woolly adelgids and their eggs are spread by wind, animals and human movement of logs, nursery stock and wood products. With no natural predators in the region, infestations have spread across the northeast into Nova Scotia and southern Ontario, and are expected to reach Prince Edward Island

By 2017, it was confirmed that the hemlock woolly adelgid had reached Kespukwitk, commonly known as southwest Nova Scotia, and a public order to stop movement of timber was issued. Shortly after, Ulnooweg joined the Nova Scotia Hemlock Initiative, a working group of government and environmental non-government organizations, to save the hemlocks.

The group’s strategy has been Mi’kmaq-led, including the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq and Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn. The Mi’kmaq conservation values of Etuaptmumk, or Two-Eyed Seeing, and Netukulimk, which refers to respecting the gifts of the Creator, are applied in a sustainable approach that combines Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge with western science.

For Googoo, it was serendipitous that Ulnooweg had acquired Asitu’lisk so the charity could answer the call-to-action to save the old “grandmothers” of Wapane’kati from hemlock woolly adelgid. 

Chris Googoo stands in Wapane’kati forest
Chris Googoo, a member of the We’koqma’q First Nation, felt immediately connected to Wapane’kati.

Mi’kmaq community members rally to treat the hemlocks and protect moose

In addition to their cultural significance, the hemlocks also play a critical ecological role for the mainland moose, a distinct species that is listed as endangered in Nova Scotia. As of 2021, there were only about 700 mainland moose in the province.

“These hemlock forests, they’re the key to [mainland moose] survival, because they provide the most beneficial type of shelter that they need,” Sherilyn Young, a consultation project support officer with Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn, said. 

The Mi’kmaq ruled out spraying pesticides, which risked negatively impacting moose and other species. Instead, they chose tree injections with imidacloprid, an effective treatment against the insect, in order to minimize the chance of chemicals entering waterways and harming living things. In mid-April, a group of volunteers gathered in the Wapane’kati forest at Asitu’lɨsk to begin a multi-day inoculation effort.

Leah Morris, a site coordinator at Asitu’lɨsk and a member of Flat Bay Band – No’kmaq Village in Newfoundland, said that a Mi’kmaw Elder visited the inoculation crew before work began. 

“We all took a handful of tobacco and prayed and gave our offering to the creator for this forest and it was a beautiful, beautiful moment,” Morris said. She has been visiting the site for years, including before the 2021 transfer to the Mi’kmaq.

A group of volunteers gather in Asitu’lisk, as sun streams through the trees and illuminates the mossy ground
Inoculating the trees with insecticide is “medicine for the forest,” Leah Morris says.

“My kids would come out and forage in the woods,” she recalled. Initially she was worried about the hemlocks being treated with pesticides.  

Morris spoke with ecology and forestry experts, as well as Mi’kmaq community members who had more insight. She asked if the insecticides would have an impact on land use. “It’s medicine for this forest,” Morris concluded. She was comforted by the words of Jane Meader, a Mi’kmaw Elder who did a ceremony at the site and found out, from the trees themselves, that they were accepting the treatment. 

Leah Morris stands under the trees in Wapane’kati
Leah Morris, a member of the Flat Bay Band – No’kmaq Village, organized a group of volunteers for a multi-day inoculation effort.

“The pesticide was going directly into the tree and not into the rest of the environment … that’s what swayed me,” Morris said. “Spraying would have been a hard ‘no,’ not something I would’ve been involved in.”

Reassured, Morris organized the volunteer inoculation crew. They followed the expertise of Dani Miller, a forest diversity manager with Community Forests International, an organization that works in Atlantic Canada and Zanzibar to protect and restore forests. 

Miller did an inventory to record tree diameters, heights and species in the forest. She located five pockets where the infestation had begun, clustered at the end of the property and by the retreat building. 

She also found that 70 per cent of the over 400-year-old forest had “never been extensively harvested, not impacted by industry,” and described it as “pure old growth in a healthy state, the same that Mi’kmaq would’ve encountered long ago.” Thirty per cent of the forest was “quite a bit younger,” with some history of clearcutting, Miller said. “About 50 per cent of the forest is hemlock-dominated, 30 per cent of hemlock and red spruce, and 20 per cent has hardwood, beech, red oak, white ash and aspen.”

“The bug kills 99 per cent of hemlock trees, so without this work … it would be almost like the effects of having a clear cut. It’s pretty urgent that at least some of the seed stock and genetic diversity of hemlocks is saved,” Miller said. 

Dani Miller, shown in the forest with canisters for the inoculation effort, in April.
Dani Miller, a forest diversity manager with Community Forests International, did an inventory of the forest and found it was mostly healthy and largely intact. Prior to being returned to the Mi’kmaw, the private owners of Asitu’lɨsk cared for the trees.

An hour west of Asitu’lɨsk is Kejimkujik National Park. It is home to extensive backcountry canoe routes, ancient Mi’kmaq campsites and portages. It’s known for its old-growth forest, which is also under threat from hemlock woolly adelgid, discovered there in 2018.

“It’s a very important tree for Kejimkujik,” Matthew Smith, an ecologist at Kejimkujik, said of the hemlock. He added that the dark foliage of the trees cools the streams. 

“We knew that if we’re going to take any actions, we’d have to do those with Mi’kmaq,” Smith said. Parks Canada sat down with the Mi’kmaq and they decided what areas to focus on, based on a stand prioritization map that marked all the hemlocks in the park.  

From there, they launched a strategy of insecticide, biocontrol and silviculture; infested hemlock stands are being thinned and hardwood trees are being planted. 

“We had a special focus towards bigger trees, particularly at the beginning,” Smith said. “[But] we realized too, it’s important to keep the next generation, so we’ve been treating the smaller trees as well.” 

Smith explained that hemlock woolly adelgid has a weakness: extreme winter temperatures.

A 2024 study found that many hemlock woolly adelgids did not survive cold snaps below -20 C, and all of them died when the mercury dipped to -25 C. But the researchers found that surviving adelgids could adapt to survive winter extremes.

“That would be the reason why you see [hemlock woolly adelgid] in Maine, but you don’t see it in New Brunswick,” Smith added. 

He noted that hemlock woolly adelgid is reaching its northern limit in Canada, but as climate change leads to warmer winters, the insect can persist and spread. 

“One crawler can start a whole new generation. It’s incredibly difficult to stop,” Smith said.

A view of one of the ancient trees, looking upward into the branches with the blue sky above.
One of the guiding principles of Asitu’lɨsk is the Mi’kmaw concept of Netukulimk, which considers the balance necessary to protect nature and its gifts for the next seven generations.

Restoring the long-term health of the forests

Lessons learned from the United States have shown that controlled releases of predator Laricobius nigrinus beetles, shipped from the Pacific northwest coast, have helped to restore the health of forests afflicted by hemlock woolly adelgid.

Beetles and silviculture are the long-term solutions, compared to the short-term measures of inoculation and spraying, which have higher financial and environmental costs.

“It’s really about returning balance to the ecosystem. Using the pesticides is more of a short-term strategy. The biocontrol is really getting to the root of the problem, which is the lack of predators,” Smith explained.

“We really need to get back to that state of mind where we’re protecting the land as best as we can … practicing Netukulimk, so we have this forest for the next seven generations,” Sherilyn Young said. She described Netukulimk as the right to access resources in a sustainable way, as gifts from the Creator. 

She said that it was human activity that brought the invasive insects, through the movement of nursery stock — a practice that’s antithetical to the value of Netukulimk. That means that it’s up to humans to act as stewards and repair the damage to the forests. 

Three small canisters injected into the mossy base of a tree, with volunteers in the background.
Inoculation with pesticide is a short-term strategy to protect the forest. Hopefully, beetles introduced into the region will prey successfully on the hemlock woolly adelgid.

It was Two-Eyed Seeing / Etuaptmumk that guided the working group’s decision to introduce Laricobius nigrinus in Nova Scotia. The approach includes pairing Indigenous ways of knowing and western science. 

“If we can introduce a species to help our species to help our grandmothers [hemlocks], why would we not do it? So long as we are doing it in the best possible way,” Young said. 

A small number of beetles were introduced into Kejimkujik by the Canadian Forest Service last year, along with around 3,500 across southwest Nova Scotia. According to Smith, many of the 175 beetles that were put into a sleeve cage survived winter at the park, a positive sign in the fight against infestations. 

Neighbours adjacent to Asitu’lɨsk also released beetles last year. “We’re guessing that where the beetles have been introduced, which is close to where we are [in Asitu’lɨsk]… we expect them eventually to get to our place,” Googoo said. Ulnooweg’s goal is to transition away from insecticides after the beetles arrive.

A close shot of a hemlock cone on a green bed of needles
Hemlock woolly adelgid is limited by cold winter temperatures. But as the climate changes, its range will expand, putting more forests at risk.

“The trees at Asitu’lɨsk are doing really well, because they caught it really early,” Smith said. ”We [in Kejimkujik] kinda found it a bit late.” 

Many hemlocks in southwest Nova Scotia have already died as a result of the infestation. Smith has estimated that around 90 per cent of infested hemlocks in the province will die within the next 10 to 15 years, and noted that the infestation is still spreading. But the efforts of the volunteers in Asitu’lɨsk have ensured their forest will survive.

“We will not save them all,” Young added. “But we can save enough of our hemlock forests that we will have a hemlock forest for the future.”

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When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

The Narwhal’s reporters uncover energy stories that send shockwaves throughout Canada. But they can’t do it alone — we need to add 300 new members this month to meet our budget. Will you support crucial climate reporting that makes an impact?
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The Narwhal’s reporters uncover energy stories that send shockwaves throughout Canada. But they can’t do it alone — we need to add 300 new members this month to meet our budget. Will you support crucial climate reporting that makes an impact?