The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
More and more Mainers are under siege on their own properties and in their communities. They’re being terrorized, not by violent extremists or fear of a deadly virus. They’re being terrorized by caterpillars.
The browntail moth is a formidable, if localized, foe. Found in Maine and on Cape Cod, the caterpillar stage of this invasive species sports poisonous hairs that can cause a painful, poison ivy-like rash and respiratory problems. The insect also defoliates trees.
It’s also not a new foe, even if it feels that way in many parts of the state. Maine has experienced browntail moth outbreaks dating back to the early 1900s. The current outbreak began in 2015 and has until recently felt more like a problem for certain coastal communities. But this year, moth webs have been found in all 16 counties of the state. The Bangor area has not been spared in this expansion, with the pests becoming more prevalent and causing painful problems for residents.
The browntail proliferation this year was not completely unexpected, with state entomologist Allison Kanoti of the Maine Forest Service predicting to the Bangor Daily News in April that dry conditions over the past year could help fuel one of the worst, if not the worst, years for the moth since its arrival in the state. That hasn’t made the situation any less unpleasant for those who have come into contact with the tiny but terrible browntail hairs.
The caterpillar’s ability to travel has further fueled their spread. It can travel up to 100 miles from where it came out of its cocoon, with help from people moving around the state.
“The caterpillars are really good at hitchhiking rides,” forest entomologist Tom Schmeelk, who leads the Forest Service’s browntail moth work, told the BDN editorial board in an interview last week.
With that range and ability, a browntail moth problem in Freeport can become a problem in Fairfield fairly easily. To us, this speaks to the need for more resources at the state level to combat this spread. As BDN politics editor Michael Shepherd (not a member of this editorial board) suggested on Twitter, it may be time for a browntail moth “Marshall Plan.” As the U.S government supplied resources to countries in post-World War II Europe to aid the recovery and limit the spread of communism, the State of Maine should be marshalling more resources to fight the spread of browntail moths.
That’s not to say state agencies aren’t already working hard on this issue. Schmeelk says he has been fielding 25 to 30 browntail moth calls per day in recent weeks. The Forest Service has information and resources outlined on a frequently asked questions page on its website, which outlines how the state is “supporting and conducting research, tracking infestations, supporting public nuisance declarations and providing education to communities in public presentations” through browntail moth work split between the Forest Service, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Maine Board of Pesticides Control.
We don’t doubt the effort. But we have to wonder about the level of statewide investment to support that work. Among the answers on the frequently asked questions page, the answer to “What is the state doing?” caught our attention.
“The state agencies are committed to coordinating within state government and with others outside to respond to this issue,” the page reads. “However, the responsibility for making decisions and raising necessary resources for pest control projects is most appropriately handled at the local or individual level.”
We don’t disagree that decisions like where to spray pesticides to target browntail moths are best made at the local and individual level. But state government needs to reassess this notion about raising resources. Statewide problems require statewide investment along with a coordinated statewide response.
Policymakers should revisit ideas like providing state funding to further study the problem and support municipal browntail mitigation efforts. The three state agencies conducting the work on the ground should do everything they can to build on existing work to collaborate with each other and with local officials, and bring the public along in the process.
For example, Schmeelk told the editorial board about a working group that was created to focus on browntail moths, which has not been meeting due to the pandemic and participants being particularly busy with ongoing work. Those meetings should resume, and the agencies should consider making them public, recurring events that Maine people can attend or watch in order to learn more about how to counter this growing problem of browntail moths.
Does all of that amount to a browntail moth Marshall Plan? Maybe not. But policymakers need to rethink the state’s role and responsibility in funding the fight against this growing problem.