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On CNN & TIME November 14:

Efforts to contain beetle invasion may be too little, too late

Anoplophora Glabripennis: the Asian Longhorned Beetle  

November 12, 1999
Web posted at: 3:20 p.m. EST (2020 GMT)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is fighting to eradicate an alien beetle that could threaten one of the country's most valuable and beautiful resources: trees.

The Asian Longhorned Beetle, native to China, has already attacked more than 5,000 trees in and near New York and Chicago. So far the USDA has spent nearly $10 million trying to stop the bug and will likely spend tens of millions more so it doesn't spread to the huge tracts of hardwoods in New England and the Upper Midwest.

The USDA, which spot-checks incoming cargo from overseas, believes the pests got past federal port inspectors in wooden shipping crates from China that had been made from infested trees.

How the Asian Longhorned Beetle kills
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"If it went unchecked, if it got into our forests, it could devastate us," says Undersecretary of Agriculture Mike Dunn.

The agency has imposed regulations on cargo crates from China and is now moving further to close off the pathway by requiring shippers all over the world to chemically treat or kiln-dry the wooden packing material to kill all the pests.

But the USDA's actions come after 20 years of warnings that this type of invasion was likely to happen and that it could be prevented:

  • In 1979, a USDA entomologist published a study warning that destructive forest pests travel easily in wooden crates and pallets. He recommended requiring that the wood be stripped of bark and chemically treated before the cargo was shipped to prevent the pests from entering the country.

       The beetle attacks maples and other
       hardwood trees.

  • In 1990, USDA inspectors in Chicago found the Asian Longhorned Beetle in cargo from China. The cargo was routinely fumigated and sent on its way without anyone at the agency realizing the inspectors had witnessed the beginning of an invasion.

  • In 1992, an official of the Oregon Department of Forestry and an official of the U.S. Forest Service each wrote the USDA recommending that wooden crates and pallets be regulated to reduce the risk of importing destructive forest pests.

  • In 1993, a report by the Office of Technology Assessment, an arm of Congress, warned that federal agencies were unprepared to cope with the growing problem of invasive species of all types. The OTA report specifically cited the USDA's lack of regulation of wood packing material.

  • In 1994, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture finally prepared to regulate wood packing material, some entomologists warned that the regulations were too weak to kill off pests that could be lurking deep inside the wood used to build shipping crates.

    Shipping crates offered an open pathway to the invaders  

    The USDA says that for many years it did not have enough manpower to make inspections of wooden crates a high priority.

    "In hindsight, should we have focused on that? Yeah, we probably should have focused on it," says the USDA's Mike Dunn. "Were the resources there to do it? No, the resources weren't there to do it."

    With fewer than a thousand inspectors to check cargo at the nation's ports in the early 1980s, the USDA began to focus more intensely on imported produce -- known to carry pests like the Medfly. The shift in priorities came as imports from China were beginning to explode.

    USDA entomologists say they knew little about potential threats from China because published research on the subject was scant. "We weren't aware that it was a concern and we weren't really looking for it," Dunn says. The agency was caught off guard when the first infestation was discovered by a Brooklyn, New York, landlord in 1996.

    Inspecting produce became a higher priority.  

    By the time the second infestation was discovered in 1998 in Chicago, the USDA had learned enough about the beetle to suspect it was coming in with cargo from China. Furthermore, it discovered that insecticides were virtually useless because the beetles spend most of their lives inside the trunks of trees, where their tunneling destroys the flow of nutrients.

    The only way to stop the spread of the insects, they found, is to cut down the trees, grind them up, and burn the chips. Residents of the infested neighborhoods mourned as trees that took decades to grow were taken down in a matter of minutes.

    "It changed the whole look of our neighborhood," says Chicagoan Gail Fearon, whose 80-year-old maple tree was attacked by the beetle.

    Her husband, Jeff Fearon, says of the invasion: "Somebody's supposed to be looking out for this and they didn't. We got invaded. It may not have been the Chinese army. It was the Chinese beetle. We were invaded."

    Alien species: A slow motion explosion
    July 7, 1999
    Invasive species threaten healthy ecosystems
    May 17, 1999

    Asian Longhorned Beetle information from:
        The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
        The U.S. Forest Service
        Ohio State University
    Asian longhorned beetle - photos
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