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New trees eyed to battle pine beetles

By Michael Mui, 24 Hours Vancouver

Wood damaged by pine beetles. 

Wood damaged by pine beetles. FILE PHOTO

A massive multi-decade project has begun out of the University of Northern B.C. to breed pine beetle-resistant trees using the seeds of lodgepole pines that survived beetle-swept areas of forest — in a form of accelerated evolution.

So far, according to principal investigator Staffan Lindgren, researchers have found chemical compounds suggesting the offspring of trees that survived the beetle may be fundamentally different from their deceased brothers and sisters.

According to B.C. government, from 2001 to 2012 an estimated 710 million cubic metres of pine timber was killed by the insect, creating vast swaths of dead wood vulnerable to wildfire.

But sometimes, not all trees are killed in the affected areas.

“When things are really bad here in Prince George, it was close to 100% death rate — in other cases, you might have 20 to 30% survive,” said Dezene Huber, one of the researchers.

It’s the seeds of those survivors that were taken during a collection period in 2010 for planting. And now, the resulting 1,000 saplings are about four years old, a metre or so tall, and it’s expected they’ll be transplanted to two research forests later this year for them to mature. This is a process that could potentially take a century — since the trees need to be big enough to qualify as potentially attractive foodsources for the beetle.

What’s got researchers so excited now, however, is that recent tests have revealed there are chemical differences between the surviving trees and the dead trees.

Researchers believe that these chemical differences could be the reason areas hit more often by the pine beetle appear to have stronger trees.

“If you take trees from southern B.C. where mountain pine beetle has been sort of every 20 to 30 years, down there, the trees are generally more resistant than the trees that were further north — the areas where we collected,” Lindgren said.

Both Lindgren and Huber have proceeded on the project with the knowledge that, by the time the trees are ready, they may both have died of old age.

“Our big worry is that these things get remembered and used over time. The reality, of course, is they (the tree research) could be forgotten,” Huber said.

“But by putting them in university research forests and having the ministry aware of their existence, hopefully, there’s some memory of these things over time.”