Ice storm increases threat from invasive beetle

12/26/08 6:34AM Nancy Cohen
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(Host) Since an invasive beetle was first discovered burrowing in maple trees this summer in Worcester, Massachusetts government scientists have been trying to figure out the extent of the infestation.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says if the Asian Long Horned Beetle isn't eliminated it could spread throughout New England, New York and even Canada.

As part of a collaboration with Northeast stations, Nancy Cohen from WNPR in Hartford reports.

(Cohen) They say lightning doesn't strike twice. But In 1953 a tornado ripped down trees in a neighborhood on the north side of Worcester. Now this same neighborhood is ground zero for a destructive insect native to Asia.

Clint McFarland of the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the Asian Long Horned Beetle eats out the hearts of trees.

(McFarland) Once the trees are infested they're going to die. They're going to fall on their own. Its just matter of time."

(Cohen) Not only does this insect spread from tree to tree. It can also catch a ride on firewood and tree branches. The beetle probably arrived here in wood-packing materials from Asia. The USDA is restricting the removal of wood from a 63 square mile area. McFarland says if the beetle isn't stopped it could attack the entire northeast forest.

(McFarland) From the Adirondacks to the Catskills in N.Y., all the way up through Maine and if you go up through Canada you're looking at the same thing. All the way up to the Arctic so were looking at a massive amount of trees.

(Cohen) State and federal workers have formed a kind of arboreal triage team, Their mission is to figure out which trees can be saved. The project could cost as much as 35 million dollars in this first year alone. Clint McFarland says the work starts on the ground

(McFarland ) Tree by tree by tree. We are estimating about 635 thousand host trees that we need to look at. Certainly a very daunting undertaking and we will survey every single one of these trees and on multiple occasions to make sure that we have eliminated every last beetle here in Worcester.

(Cargulian) Its a 25 inch Red. Red Maple.

(Cohen) Massachusetts forester Leon Caragulian is part of the ground survey team. They're looking for dimpled depressions in the bark, where the female beetles lay their eggs. And for holes where the adults emerge. But sometimes its hard to see from the ground.

In a patch of woods a group of five men, supported by ropes and harnesses, are climbing into the tippity tops of trees to get a good look at immature branches. The beetles prefer the tender bark.

(Freidrichs) its this one right here.

Kai Friedrichs, a kind of real-life Spiderman, is suspended horizontally between two trees in the air. He just found an egg site.

(Friedrichs) Its this spar that's leaning the furthest away from us here on the right up towards the top. There's where I found it.

(Cohen) Friedrichs and his colleagues are U-S Forest Service smokejumpers. Their main job is putting out forest fires. But since 1996 when the Asian Long Horned Beetle first appeared in North America in Brooklyn, New York, they've developed a kind of sideline-stopping the beetle from spreading. 41 year old Rico Gonzales, who has climbed trees looking for the beetle in New York, New Jersey and Chicago says Worcester is the worst infestation hes seen.

(Gonzales ) "We'd go weeks without finding it back in NY and its here every other day you're finding at least one or two."

(Cohen) That may not sound like much. But so far the government has confirmed nearly 6000 infested trees that will be cut down this winter. Many residents, like Cathy King who has a maple in front of her house, understands that losing these trees will save others.

(King) I was devastated because this neighborhood is made beautiful because of the trees in it... Its a shame, but... it has to be done."

(Host) In addition to cutting down infested trees the USDA wants to cut down any species of tree that the beetle prefers, including maples, birches, and willows. Even if they aren't infested yet. That adds up to 21,000 trees.

In the meantime, a recent ice storm brought a new challenge. How to prevent the hundreds of thousands of broken tree limbs, and any beetles that may be in them,  from being moved outside the quarantined area.

 For VPR News, I'm Nancy Cohen

(Host Outro) Our environmental coverage is part of NPR's Local News Initiative.

AP Photo/University of Illinois, James E. Appleby 

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