With a couple clicks on his computer, Robert G. Wagner finds the page he’s looking for and cues up a video loop. On a weather map, a huge snowstorm builds, blowing across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec into New Brunswick.

Except, it’s not a snowstorm. The weather map shows a scene from July 2013. And that’s an enormous flight of spruce budworm moths.

“It’s astonishing,” said Wagner, a forestry professor at the University of Maine and the director of the Center for Research on Sustainable Forests and the Cooperative Forestry Research Unit. “It turns out that Doppler radar, which we use to show rainfall and snow, can actually pick up [spruce] budworm flights.”

This flight — estimated by the Canadian government at more than 1 trillion moths — took wing two summers ago and fueled by a low-pressure system, flew across the St. Lawrence to Rimouski, Quebec, a town on the south shore. Once there, the budworms took up housekeeping and began doing what they do: The offspring of those moths ate white spruce and balsam fir trees, leaving a dying and defoliated forest in their wake.

“As I understand it, [the spruce budworm moths] can actually sense a low-pressure system coming in, and as the front’s coming in, they take the sail and will catch the wind,” Wagner said. “That’s how they get the mass migrations and they can populate food sources in other places.”

At the present time, more than 15 million acres of Quebec and New Brunswick woodlands have been killed by spruce budworm, according to Wagner. It takes several years for an infestation to lead to defoliation, but that’s beginning to take place in parts of Atlantic Canada.

And barely 100 miles from Rimouski sits Maine, which is no stranger to battles with the native pest: In the 1970s and 1980s, a major outbreak of spruce budworm cost the forest industry dearly. The Maine Forest Service estimates that event killed between 20 million and 25 million cords of fir and spruce worth hundreds of millions of dollars. A similar outbreak in Maine today would have an economic impact of $794 million per year, according to a task force studying the issue.

While experts are holding out hope that the effect will be less this time around, they agree on one thing.

“It’s coming,” said Dave Struble, the state entomologist for the Maine Forest Service, echoing the opinion of most of his peers. “People don’t have to be in a blind, spiral panic, but we need to start thinking about this. We need to start planning. People need to start thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’”

Wagner and others, including Struble, are doing just that: They’re planning for the inevitable return of the spruce budworm, and trying to ensure that Maine is more prepared than it was a few decades ago, when the budworm population last exploded. Landowners have the option of changing harvest plans and applying pesticide, and industry insiders are considering all available options as they make plans for the future.

But when will the budworm get to Maine?

Nobody really knows, but most who are monitoring the situation say that in two to eight years, Maine will likely have some level of defoliation of the state’s spruce and fir trees.

Never saw it coming

Doug Denico was a young forester in Aroostook County the last time the state experienced a spruce budworm outbreak.

The insects are native to Maine and are always here in low numbers. But cyclically — about every 30 to 40 years, according to Wagner and others — conditions support an out-of-control population explosion, and thousands of spruce budworm larvae vie for snacks.

The preferred food? The needles of balsam fir and white spruce.

Denico, now the director of the Maine Forest Service, said communication between industry insiders was poor back in the 1970s and 1980s, and that didn’t help mount a unified front against the insect.

“I was working for [International Paper] in 1969 and a bit of 1970. Budworm was defoliating very rapidly as far down as Knowles Corner, Oakfield,” Denico said. “I came down to work for [another company] in August, and it was just like they’d never heard of a budworm. That’s how horrible the communications were between the companies.”

As the epidemic grew, most Mainers learned what the spruce budworm was, what it was capable of doing, and heard about the large-scale spraying of insecticides that was being dumped on the state’s forests in attempts to knock the insects back.

“It was a war,” Struble said. “We were fighting to protect a resource. We were looking for sticks, and the budworm thought they were pastures.”

Those involved in the forest industry say that this time around, things will be different. Monitoring of budworm populations have continued nonstop since the 1980s outbreak, and state and industry leaders are finalizing a task force report that looks at risks of a new outbreak, as preparation and response strategies that can pay dividends this time around.

Industry insiders agree that the massive spraying program used in the 1980s won’t be an option now though — the cost is too high, and the public won’t support such an effort. Figuring out how to get threatened trees to market before a defoliation, or during salvage operations afterward, will be key.

“The industry is resilient,” said Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, which represents many large landowners and timber-related business. “There needs to be some innovation taking place in order to find markets for all of these materials [that may be affected by an outbreak]. That’s the big challenge.”

Struble said that although he’s a scientist who studies bugs, he agrees.

“It’s not just about the bugs,” Struble said. “It’s about the markets. When can you move the product? And if you can’t move it at all, is it worth protecting?”

Wagner said there are a few options for landowners. Companies can change harvesting plans to take the wood supply out of the forest before the budworm arrives. They can protect high-value stands of trees by spraying. Or they can salvage the trees shortly after defoliation occurs, when they are still viable. Although the trees won’t likely sell for what healthy trees are worth, this would allow landowners to receive some return on their investment.

“All three [of the options] rely on having a reliable market for spruce/fir,” Wagner said.

And that’s the catch.

“What’s happening in Quebec is you’ve got all this wood on the market because they’re harvesting their dead trees ahead of us,” Wagner said. “And on top of it all, the prices for softwood lumber has really collapsed.”

Not all bad news

Wagner pointed out that the task force has identified plenty of ways that Maine is in better shape to withstand a coming invasion of budworm than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

The forest itself is less vulnerable to the pests, with fewer spruce and fir on the landscape. The capacity of mills and biomass generators to handle the wood has increased dramatically. And an improved system of roads has made the spruce/fir forests more accessible than they previously were.

And despite the effect on the forest industry, periodic changes in a forest can have benefits for some creatures, state wildlife biologist Joe Wiley pointed out.

“There’s always winners and losers when almost anything like [a spruce budworm outbreak] happens,” Wiley said. “In this case, our current high lynx populations and snowshoe hare populations are a result of the last outbreak.”

On the other side of the coin, he pointed out that deer rely on evergreen trees for winter shelter, and an outbreak of spruce budworm would further decimate wintering areas.

“If we knew the severity and the extent of the [coming] outbreak, we could do some crystal ball work on wildlife impacts,” he said.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. So wildlife professionals will have to be ready for anything.

With that said, many forestry experts are hoping for a less-than-severe outbreak. They point out that many times, a severe outbreak is followed by a less severe situation a few decades later.

Strauch, the industry spokesman, said he has spent time considering best- and worst-case scenarios as a potential budworm crisis gets closer.

“The best case scenario is that we continue to sit in a position where we’ve got a market for every tree species and size of material that we have in Maine,” Strauch said. “Worst case scenario is we have a pretty hard infestation of spruce budworm and no markets to really move that material. It’s just not the best use of resources if we can’t find a home for all that material that’s getting clobbered [by bugs].”

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...