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Ash Borer the Target of New Invasive Species Effort

UPSTATE NEW YORK (Produced by The New York Reporting Project at Utica College) - Non-native plants and animals will readily invade a local ecosystem if they get the chance think kudzu or the gypsy moth, or even those Africanized "killer bees." But now scientists with the State Department of Environmental Conservation are tracking a new threat to New York the Emerald Ash Borer. They entered the state near Buffalo and earlier this month were found at West Point, on the Hudson River.

Take a walk through the woods at Hunt's Pond in New Berlin, New York, and one can't help but notice purple boxes hanging from the trees. At first glance they look a little bit like big birdhouses. But instead of attracting birds to enjoy a quick bite to eat, these boxes serve a larger purpose- to trap little green bugs.

They're part of a program to track the emerald ash borer non native beetles that are threatening New York's 900 million ash trees .10 percent of all the hardwoods in the state.

Robert Slavicek is a forester with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. He says when the bugs get hold of a tree they bore tiny tunnels called galleries into the wood, eventually "girdling" the tree, or making the bark fall off. Starting a death spiral. Killing the tree from the top down.

"It lays its eggs in the top portion of the tree. And as the larva then develops, the larva eats galleries underneath the bark and kills the live part of the tree by girdling it. Because there's so many galleries that the nutrients can't flow up from the roots to the leaves anymore. And it eventually girdles the tree and kills it."

The ash borer is just a quarter to half-inch long. First spotted in Michigan nine years ago, likely fter arriving in packing material cargo ships from Asia. Since then it has spread to 15 (ck) states and Canada, killing tens of millions of ash trees along the way.

"It takes between two and four years to kill the tree there's no known way to save this. There's no natural predators for this insect. "

For now, the DEC has established the "Don't Move Firewood" campaign, aimed at keeping untreated wood from being moved more than 50 miles from its original location.

This is all part of a federal quarantine aimed at containing the beetle and the economic damage it may cause. The market for ash lumber grown in the eastern U.S. is about $25 billion dollars a year. Ash is used to make furniture and flooring, tool handles and shipping pallets.

And not far from the Baseball Hall of Fame, Ash is highly prized at the Cooperstown Bat Factory. The company specializes in custom bats for players and collectors alike, and 40 percent of them are made from ash. Company president Tim Haney says ash bats are popular because of the wood's structure.

"Ash is a hardwood that is very flexible. It allows the ball to, in essence, spring off the bat. It makes them a little easier to use when it comes to maybe first time users. "

Haney hopes a trend toward maple bats and new composites will cushion the blow if the problem spreads.

But Hardwood forests aren't the only areas at risk. Cities and suburbs could also lose critical trees and the cooling canopy they provide. Ash trees replaced many of the Elms that were wiped out by Dutch Elm Disease.

Mark Whitmore is a forest entomologist at Cornell University. He suggests that homeowners check their trees for any sign of an infestation.

"What you really need to look for are where Woodpeckers are actually foraging on the bark of the tree and going for the Emerald Ash Borer. If you have an Ash tree in your yard and you see Woodpeckers on it, and they're looking in the bark, you should really be paying attention to what's going on. Because often times , Woodpeckers will be doing this and will be feeding on the trees and on the bugs in the trees before crown symptoms really show up."

If the tree's crown is still flush with leaves, pesticides can protect the tree from further damage. But, once dieback is becomes more widespread, there isn't much that can be done. The fate of the states 900 million ash trees may be in the hands of scientists looking for a way to stop the ash borer in its tracks.

Robert Slavicek of the DEC:

"The U.S. government is researching to see if there are some native predators from Northern Asia that they want to introduce to this country."

In other words, an insect arms war of sorts.

"But once you do that, you don't know how those insects might react to the native flora and fauna."

But as the Emerald Ash Borer continues to eat its way across the state, the DEC, and local arborists, are simply trying to keep up.