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Lake, Cook counties under gypsy moth quarantine

A gypsy moth caterpillar sits on a tree leaf. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is enforcing a quarantine in Lake and Cook counties starting today, hoping to keep the gypsy moth outbreak in check. (Minnesota Department of Agriculture photo)1 / 2
Enforcement of the quarantine was waiting until concerns from the timber industry were addressed. (File / News Tribune)2 / 2

The state will begin enforcing its first gypsy moth quarantine today, aimed at Lake and Cook counties, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture announced Monday.

The quarantine requires that tourists check their campers and loggers check their trucks and loads to make sure they aren’t transporting moth eggs out of the two counties now considered saturated with the invasive pest from Europe.

Slowly marching east across the U.S. for more than a century, the gypsy moths have taken hold along the North Shore in recent years. Efforts to curtail their numbers have been unsuccessful.

The quarantine, although mostly voluntary and dependent on the honor system, applies to logs and firewood, camping equipment and patio furniture, and other items that could be infested with gypsy moths. The list of items must be inspected and certified as gypsy moth-free before moving to a nonquarantined area.

Gypsy moths could move only a few miles each year on their own. But their spread has been helped along by unknowing tourists and others who transport gypsy moth eggs from infested spots to uninfested areas, where they hatch and spread.

The spread often correlates with popular travel routes, campgrounds and parks that are tourist destinations.

Homeowners, campers and others who live in and visit the quarantine area will need to self-inspect outdoor household items such as RVs, camping equipment and patio furniture before moving those items out of the quarantine.

Commercial items regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — including firewood, pulp wood, and saw logs — made or harvested in the two counties and then moved to another county are subject to a federal compliance agreement that allows loggers, truckers and mills to move their products to market but keep track of their inspections.

The quarantine, first detailed in January, has been on hold until those issues were addressed.

Timber industry officials had expressed concern that the original quarantine rules, proposed last year, could have prevented wood products in Lake and Cook counties from getting to some markets beyond the quarantine.

Industry officials and regulatory agencies took a closer look at gypsy moth outbreaks and found no correlation between outbreaks and mill locations, said Tim O’Hara, vice president of forest policy for the Minnesota Timber Producers industry group.

“Our problems were addressed; both (the state and U.S. departments of Agriculture) were very good to work with,’’ O’Hara said.

Northeastern Minnesota mills also will participate in a test program to see how many, if any, gypsy moth larvae are making it through the logging, transport and de-barking process. At one mill, Hedstrom Lumber outside Grand Marais, officials will intentionally place eggs onto some logs to see if they make it through the procedure.

State officials expect the first major forest defoliation in Lake and Cook counties within 3-5 years, with the moth’s caterpillar stage of life doing the damage. Trees usually recover from the hungry caterpillars, but they can be stressed. Repetitive, annual deforestation has killed up to 20 percent of the trees in some areas of the eastern United States.

Gypsy moth caterpillars favor aspen, birch, willow and oak and can defoliate vast areas quickly, causing already stressed trees to die and reducing tree growth. Combined with drought and native pests, the foreign invader could hit some Northland trees hard.

While no one expects to stop the gypsy moth’s spread west, the quarantine is a necessary tool to help slow the spread into uninfected areas, said Geir Friisoe, director of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Plant Protection Division.

The state first will use education to convince people to check items before leaving the affected counties. But they also have the ability to assess fines up to $7,500 for people or businesses who don’t take the required steps.

“We have the ability to enforce this with businesses. But we are not going to have inspectors standing along Highway 61 to enforce this for everyone who drives by in a camper,’’ said Allen Sommerfield, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture. “If we find out people are knowingly violating the quarantine, where they know they should be inspecting and continue not to, then we can take enforcement action.”

The quarantine includes all of Lake and Cook counties and comes after the state trapped more than 71,000 gypsy moths last summer along and near the North Shore, 90 percent of which were in those two counties.  That number was, by far, a record. It shows that the moths, which can defoliate large swaths of forest in their caterpillar stage, have become entrenched in the Arrowhead.

State pest experts say they sprayed “just about every inch of Lake and Cook counties from 2006-2011,’’ in an effort to slow their advancement. But that effort has ended now, moving west into the new national frontline against the moths. Residents in St. Louis and Carlton counties already have seen an increase in aerial spraying this month. That spraying can be either a natural soil bacterium that kills gypsy moth caterpillars or synthetic hormone flakes that fool male moths so they don’t mate.

State officials also are hoping that an imported fungus, released in 2010 — from Duluth to Hovland along Lake Superior and inland near Tower and Ely — may attack and kill moth larvae. The fungus has been successful in reducing gypsy moth numbers in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

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