In this Jan. 22, 2021, file photo, browntail moth nests are in a crabapple tree in Brewer. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Maine lawmakers are considering starting a new fund to help cities and towns try to slow the spread of an invasive moth that can cause an itchy rash in humans.

The fund would help communities combat the browntail moth, which has been the subject of an ongoing outbreak in the state that began about seven years ago. The moth caterpillars have poisonous hairs that can cause respiratory trouble and a rash that resembles poison ivy.

The fund would start with $150,000 in grants in the 2022-23 fiscal year. The money could be used by municipalities and nonprofit groups for activities that control the spread of the moth, such as hiring arborists and pesticide applicators and renting equipment to clip down moth nests, said the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Allison Hepler of Woolwich.

The moth arrived in Maine a century ago, and entomologists said last year was the worst year for browntail moth infestations in its history. The moth is also found in Massachusetts.

“It’s a problem. And it’s not going away,” Hepler said. “It’s just a way to help small towns, to spread out the resources.”

Maine forestry officials named February as Browntail Moth Awareness Month to try to encourage residents to be cognizant of the moth and take steps to slow its spread. The worst infestations have been in southern Maine and the state’s mid-coast region.

The fund proposal was the subject of a public hearing before a committee of the Maine Legislature on Tuesday. The Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is expected to vote on the proposal in the near future.

The moths can also have devastating consequences for woodland owners because they feed on hardwood trees and shrubs, said Karla Black, deputy executive director of Maine Woodland Owners. The group testified in favor of creation of the new fund.

“As we work our way toward spring and the beginning of another browntail moth season, this bill provides a ray of hope,” Black said.

Story by Patrick Whittle.