Towns eye regional approach to browntail moth scourge

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FALMOUTH — It’s the time of year when browntail moth caterpillars hatch to feed and start building their winter nests.

In response, a group of area town managers got together to see if a more regional approach to the widespread problem could be more effective.

Towns have been battling the infestation of this pest on their own for the past several years, but the browntail moth continues to spread from coastal areas inland, impacting more and more people every year.

Managers from Falmouth, Freeport, Cumberland, Yarmouth and Brunswick met in late July along with Cumberland County Manager Jim Gailey and representatives from the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

One issue that was discussed was whether to declare the browntail moth a public health nuisance, according to Falmouth Town Manager Nathan Poore. However, all of the discussion was preliminary and no community has yet committed to any common course of action.

A public health declaration would be critical to getting approval for aerial spraying in early spring 2019, Poore said this week. He said the group also discussed funding for a regional effort, particularly research into a fungus that provides a natural way to eliminate the moths.

Browntail moth caterpillars represent a serious threat to human health because their toxic hairs can cause severe breathing problems, as well as painful rashes that can last anywhere from several hours to several weeks, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry.

The caterpillars are also harmful to the environment because they can cause tree die-off, particularly in areas that have a high browntail moth population. The caterpillars like hardwood trees and shrubs, according to the state.

“Our issue, at this point, (mostly) concerns the impact to people within the infestation area. Many people are suffering, especially from severe skin irritation,” Poore said this week.

In late May, Falmouth sprayed infested trees in the public right of way for the first time. The main areas of focus were Waites Landing Road, Foreside Road and parts of Longwoods and Middle roads. It’s unclear whether that effort was successful.

In addition to municipal efforts to combat browntail moths, Poore said the group of managers also talked about developing “a joint public awareness program to help educate the general public and help them better prepare for 2019.”

One way Falmouth is trying to increase public awareness is by creating a dedicated browntail moth page on the town website.

Poore said a regional effort could be crucial because “consistent education, policy development and advocacy” are all key ways to fight back. In terms of advocacy, Poore said that could include calling on the state for help, particularly for funding and developing further expertise on the problematic moth.

Peter Joseph, the Freeport town manager, said, “all of us are in the cross hairs” of the browntail moth problem, which is why it made sense to at least get together and talk about a regional approach.

There are a number of possibilities on the table, Joseph said, but “at this point I am just gathering information to discuss with the Town Council in the near future.”

However, “one concrete step that came out of the (joint) meeting,” Joseph said, was an agreement to hold joint informational sessions this fall, instead of each community competing to bring in guest speakers and state experts.

“This will hopefully allow us to have fewer, better attended regional presentations, which will hopefully … provide a more informative presentation for area residents.”

Joseph said the dates and locations for those meetings are not set yet, but residents will be informed when the schedule is finalized.

The issue has taken on new urgency because, according to the Yarmouth Community Services website, the “browntail moth has settled in (the area) in record numbers.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Browntail moths are spreading, leading area towns to discuss whether a regional approach might be more effective in combating the pest. (Portland Press Herald)

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