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Gypsy-moth threat is eyed

State forestry officials aren’t too worried about this year’s gypsy-moth outbreak in the northeast.

It’s the future that has them concerned.

Andy Duncan, a service forester with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said this year’s gypsy-moth population in the northeast has been in decline for several years.

Two years ago, gypsy moths defoliated 60,000 acres in Northeast Pennsylvania. Last year the figure dropped to 15,000 acres, and Duncan expects it to be even less this year.

Still, he is concerned.

A dry spring could allow gypsy-moth populations to grow by limiting the spread of a natural fungus that kills the caterpillars. The fungus needs cool, moist weather to thrive, Duncan said.

Still, a few days of rain could remedy the situation.

The main reason for Duncan’s concern emanates from the central part of the state, where gypsy-moth populations are booming. Those hungry caterpillars could wipe out their food source – foliage -- in that part of the state. At the same time, low populations here have allowed much of the forest to remain unscathed, creating an untapped food source that could attract the hungry throng from central Pennsylvania.

“The population out there started to build two years ago. This year they’re going to have a tremendous amount of defoliation,” Duncan said. “As our population dwindles down, the concern is the gypsy moths could spread east.”

The state is set to embark on an ambitious spray schedule later this spring, but Duncan said those applications are basically aimed to knock down local populations. More than 225,000 acres of state land are set to be sprayed – most of it considered a high priority area due to its timber value or wildlife habitat.

In Luzerne County, 7,765 acres will be sprayed at $35 per acre. The state and county will share the cost of spraying, with each picking up 50 percent of the tab.

The largest tracts to be sprayed in Luzerne County are Foster Township (1,404 acres), Black Creek/Hazle townships (1,184 acres) and Bear Creek Township (1,043 acres).

Andy Gegaris, the county’s chief of environment and recreation, said the list of areas set to be sprayed is finalized, and he thinks the spray program will make an impact.

“We’re thankful the state made the cost share available, and we’re happy to do what we can to protect the forests and open space in the county,” he said.

Spraying generally begins in mid-May and is most effective when the gypsy moths are in the middle stages of their 5-stage life cycle.

Although the spread from central Pennsylvania may not reach the northeast until two or three years from now, Duncan said if the fungus doesn’t appear this year we will see the results in 2009.

“I’m concerned. This warm, dry spell will cause the foliage to come out sooner, and there’s a chance this fungus won’t kick in,” he said. “We need the fungus because it prevents a major infestation for next year.”

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