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Insects pollinate our crops, they serve as pest control by taking care of other problem insects, they even help clean up waste. There are plenty of good types of bugs. The browntail moth, however, is not one of them.
We are at war with these bugs here in Maine. And as we’ve argued before, this ongoing battle requires a strong response from the state. It requires a browntail moth Marshall Plan.
That response thankfully did get stronger at the recent conclusion of the 130th Legislature, with lawmakers passing and Gov. Janet Mills signing a new law to create a $150,000 fund to help municipalities and nonprofits deal with browntail moth mitigation. Those recommended mitigation efforts include using pesticides to kill the caterpillars before the end of May and web removal from late October to mid-April.
The caterpillar stage of these invaders has poisonous hairs that can cause a painful, poison ivy-like rash and respiratory problems. Tree defoliation is also a big problem. Aerial mapping last year found almost 200,000 acres damaged by the moths. They have been a cyclical problem since first arriving in Maine in the early 1900s, with numbers growing rapidly over the past seven years.
We and others have called on the state to step up its role and resources in the browntail moth fight, and this new funding fits the bill.
The new law’s lead sponsor Rep. Allison Hepler, a Democrat from Woolwhich, called the browntail moth issue a “growing problem that will not be reduced until action is taken” in February testimony.
“I am not an alarmist, but the consequences of tree damage across the state affect the forest’s ability to sequester carbon, and the impact of pests like browntail moth on people stress our health care system,” Hepler continued.
Bangor Public Works Director Aaron Huotari testified in favor of the measure in February, highlighting the toll that browntail moths have taken on both Bangor’s trees and residents.
“The City of Bangor has earned the Tree City, USA designation for the last 16 years. We budget and spend a great deal of money to maintain healthy trees, remove dead and dying trees, and plant new ones every year. A great number of these public assets are the target food for browntail moth, especially oak and fruit trees,” Huotari told lawmakers. “Last year’s infestation resulted in dozens, if not hundreds, of trees in Bangor being completely defoliated. Many trees appear to have bounced back with a second leafing out but the trees are severely stressed at this point.”
Unfortunately, as explained by BDN reporter Lauren Abbate, this year is shaping up to be another bad one for browntail moths after last year was the worst Maine had ever experienced. More rain is needed in the next month an a half to support the spread of fungal and viral diseases that can kill the caterpillars.
“Another large outbreak this year is likely to result in a significant number of previously healthy trees dying off. This affects residents and visitors of the city as areas of vibrant growth become stark brown treescapes thereby decreasing property value and no longer providing cooling effects, air cleansing, and mind calming properties,” Huotari continued. “If the browntail moth infestations aren’t brought under control it will take the City of Bangor’s tree ecosystem years to recover.”
There are steps individual property owners can take to help manage the spread and impact of browntial moths. The Maine Forest Service has information and resources outlined on a frequently asked questions page on its website. And as Abbate pointed out, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention released information in early May about how people can protect themselves from browntail moth exposure.
Even with existing efforts, the need to marshal more collective resources has been clear. We are glad state leaders have taken this step to bolster support for local efforts across Maine. This is not a war for individuals or communities to be waging alone.