Saanich home to experts on pine beetle blight

Saanich facility, Pacific Forestry Centre, is one of five national Forest Service research centres.

Kathy Bleiker slides a chisel beneath the bark on a chunk of infested lodgepole pine. When she lifts the bark from the specimen, she immediately hones in on a black speck no bigger than a few millimetres long.

With her index finger, she points out a mountain pine beetle, the focus of her bark beetle ecology research within the Pacific Forestry Centre.

“It’s really amazing that something that small can do that,” she says, noting the insect’s destruction of 726 million cubic metres of timber in B.C.

As the pest eats its way east, Bleiker is among the leading experts on the potential carnage awaiting Alberta’s northern woods. “Basically the beetle ate itself out of house and home (in B.C.),” she says.

Despite its visibility to thousands of commuters travelling the Trans-Canada Highway, the forestry centre is often a forgotten hub of scientific research within Saanich.

Bleiker is one of 48 scientific personnel studying Canadian forests at the centre. Overall 192 people, including students and support staff, work at the site. Climate change and carbon accounting, national forest inventory and monitoring, remote sensing, disturbance ecology, microbial ecology, soil productivity, invasive and alien species, pathology, entomology and economics – there’s a broad list of specializations among the country’s top forestry research scientists working inside the building.

The Saanich facility is one of five national Forest Service research centres. The others are in Edmonton, Sault Ste. Marie, Quebec City and Fredericton.

But it’s the Pacific Forestry Centre that is known as a leader in bark beetle research, due to its proximity to mountain pine beetle outbreaks, including a less-severe episode in the early 1980s, as well as B.C.’s ongoing issue with four varieties of bark beetle (mountain pine, spruce, Douglas-fir, and western balsam).

“Even though a lot of the mountain pine beetle research happens at pacific, we’re quite a national organization and we can call on colleagues that work somewhere else to work on a problem,” Bleiker said, adding that the data collected at the centre is shared widely between researchers across North America.

Bleiker completed a bachelor of science at the University of Victoria prior to obtaining a masters degree from the University of Northern B.C. and later a post-graduate degree in forestry from the University of Montana. As a student, prior to beginning her current work at the centre in 2009, Bleiker accessed free publications through the Canadian Forest Service online database. While the research isn’t necessarily in layman’s terms, the database is a resource she’d like to see more members of the public learn to harness.

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