Emerald ash borer reaches White River Junction

  • The presence of the emerald ash borer has been found in White River Junction, Vt., area (shown in yellow) this fall, its first appearance in Windsor County. (Vermont Invasives illustration) Vermont Invasives illustration

  • State Entomologist for the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets Judy Rosovsky wraps up an ash log in her lab in Berlin, Vt., Tuesday, May 1, 2018. The log, which was cut in Orange, Vt., and contains evidence of emerald ash borer activity, is kept in a freezer with other samples of trees containing the larvae of the invasive insect to prevent its spread. Following a survey of towns bordering the four-town area where it has been confirmed, officials met in Berlin Wednesday to plot their next steps and discuss details of a quarantine. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/1/2021 6:49:45 AM
Modified: 12/1/2021 6:49:13 AM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Bob Little Tree took down an insect trap he monitors for emerald ash borers in Veterans Park in downtown White River Junction at the end of August and found an adult beetle that he suspected could be the dreaded invasive.

Months later, state and federal testing has confirmed that it was an emerald ash borer, the first known case in Windsor County, state officials said in November.

The emerald ash borer is a vivid green jewel beetle that feeds on ash trees, wiping out virtually all of them when it infests a region. Although some hope that individual ash trees will prove resistant to the invasive, all of Vermont’s 150 million ash trees — which make up 5% of its forests — are at risk.

The destructive Asian insect was first found in Michigan in 2002. In 2018, it made its first known appearance in Vermont when it was detected in northern Orange County. It’s also been found across the river in New Hampshire, where Hanover, Lebanon and Plainfield are already grappling with infestations.

Yet when state and federal scientists inspected the ash trees in Veterans Park, the trees seemed healthy.

“It can take three and five years between when the beetle enters the tree and when the larvae inside it have built up to the extent that you start seeing damage on the outside of the tree, or an adult could have flown in from across the river,” said Ginger Nickerson, the UVM Extension employee who helps coordinate the Forest Pest First Detector Program where Little Tree volunteers.

Only time will tell if the discovery is an isolated event or the harbinger of the emerald ash borer’s inevitable spread.

Testing also confirmed new sightings of the invasive beetle in Brookfield, and in Belvidere in Lamoille County.

In light of the recent discoveries, Vermont has expanded its “slow the spread” recommendations to more Upper Valley towns, including Pomfret, Sharon and Thetford. Naturally, the insects spread only 1 or 2 miles a year, but people often unwittingly aid their spread, according to Vermont Invasives, a partnership between University of Vermont Extension and the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. For example, transporting wood for timber or firewood out of an infested area may bring the emerald ash borer to a new region.

The slower the spread, the more time municipalities have to find a way to absorb the expense of an infestation, said Jim Esden, a “protection forester” with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.

Early signs of an infestation can be hard to see, he explained. Shoots sprouting at the base of a tree, off-color foliage, dying branches during a tree’s prime, and woodpeckers eating away at the bark to attack the burrowed insects are all hints that a tree may be infested. But the most incriminating evidence is more subtle. The beetles leave exit holes that are only one-eighth of an inch wide and meandering tunnels below the bark, Esden said.

Now is the time for landowners to preempt the ash borer’s advance. Since Oct. 1, the emerald ash borer has been in its “non-flight season” when landowners have more options in infested areas, Esden said. “At this time of year, it’s under the bark — not in a state where it can move or fly,” he said. The emerald ash borer burrows into the tree where it feeds and matures until the summer when it emerges developed enough to fly.

Until June when “flight season” begins, landowners can harvest ash trees in infested areas and sell them to buyers that then administer a heat treatment to kill off the insects. The trees can also be sold for firewood within an infested area all through the year.

While Esden accepted that almost all of the ash trees in the state will die, he still has hope.

There is an incentive for “preempting” the problem by harvesting trees before they are too brittle to be used as timber, Esden said. The cost of removing a tree climbs as the trees become increasingly brittle. But he and other experts ask landowners to reconsider before immediately harvesting all of the ash trees on their property.

“We joke around about ‘draining the gene pool,’” he said. “If we still retain some ash in native stand as a seed source for next generation, hopefully we can identify if there are some naturally resistant trees out there.”

Hartford officials on Tuesday said they weren’t surprised the ash borer’s presence has been confirmed.

“We knew it was coming, but it didn’t give us much time to make a concrete plan,” said Hartford Selectboard Chairman Dan Fraser, the liaison to Hartford’s Tree Board.

A 2014 inventory of ash trees in the town of Hartford identified 63 ash trees on public property as well as 1,778 trees on public corridors for roads and utility lines. Eighty were designated “road hazards” and 116 “utility hazards.” The emerald ash borer weakens and kills ash trees, which can be dangerous if they then fall across roads or power lines. The town will likely have to remove these “hazard trees” as the infestation progresses.

“We wish we could do more, but the budget is small,” Fraser said.

The Tree Board’s current budget is not enough to remove all of the ash trees that may become hazards, he explained. He also anticipates that the cost of dealing with the ash borer’s arrival is on the rise.

“With the labor shortage, the cost of everything has increased dramatically,” he said. “And the labor who would address these issues, there will be high demand for their services.”

For now, the news is fresh and there are “many moving pieces.” Hartford will look to see if the state will fund municipalities’ efforts to manage the infestations, Fraser said. It is also budget season in Hartford, and he said that money may be allocated toward the ash borer infestation “now that it is a pressing issue.”

The Tree Board already treated several prominent ash trees in town with a chemical injection that will protect them from the emerald ash borer, according to minutes from the Tree Board’s meetings.

In the meantime, Vermont is experimenting with bio-controls, Esden said: “Parasitoid” insects bred in a laboratory to feed on the ash borer may one day establish colonies that balance out the emerald ash borer and give some future ash trees a chance at survival. The parasitoids, which are costly to raise in a laboratory, have been used on a pilot basis elsewhere in the state.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727- 3242.

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