By Bruce A. Smith
The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) has announced that it will conduct a pesticide spraying program in selected neighborhoods in northern Graham to control a Gypsy Moth (GM) infestation. The spraying will commence in late April or early May, according to Mike Louisell, the Public Information Officer for the WSDA, and will consist of three aerial applications of a chemical pesticide known as BTK.
BTK is an acronym for Bacillus thuringensis.kurstaki and is well-known to pest control managers and organic farmers alike. The primary form of BTK is the base bacteria called Bacillus thuringensis, aka “Bt” which thrives naturally in soil and is lethal to many insects. It has been a mainstay for the organic control of garden insects for many years, and the “kurstaki” modification is a genetic addition to make the Bt specifically toxic to Gypsy Moths. In Gypsy Moths, the BTK attacks certain receptor sites in the intestine of the moths’ caterpillar stage.
To control Gypsy Moths, the WSDA uses an aerosol that contains the BTK in a foggy mix that will help the BTK stick to vegetation and resist subsequent rainfall. The targeted area in Graham has been identified as populated with Gypsy Moth eggs, and from those egg clusters a large contingent of GM caterpillars are expected to hatch this spring. After hatching, the caterpillars crawl to neighboring trees and consume the leaves voraciously. When the GM ingest the BTK their digestive system fails, and the GM population is prevented from spreading to other vegetated areas.
Gypsy Moths are not native to North America, but were introduced to the United States in the 1880s by entrepreneurs seeking to develop a Silk Worm-Gypsy Moth hybrid and launch an American silk industry. However, the Gypsy Moths escaped their initial control and are now endemic throughout the eastern seaboard. Where the GM have established permanent populations they have been able to decimate large swaths of forestland. Maryland reports its infestations have stripped over 30,000 acres of forestland in extreme years.
Since Gypsy Moths are not native to Washington State nor anywhere in the western United States, the WSDA is seeking to prevent the problems that have occurred in the eastern areas of the country. Over the past forty years the WSDA has conducted an active GM control program as GM eggs, larva, and adults have migrated across the United States, most notably in vehicles and lawn furniture traveling westward when residents from infected states relocate or simply visit.
Gypsy Moths are known to feed on over 500 species of trees and shrubs. Locally, GM will most commonly feed upon alders, fruit trees, and spruce.
In addition to mailing 12,000 postcards to local residents, representatives of the WSDA came to the Graham area in February to inform folks on what to expect from the GM spraying. Despite the long-standing use of Bt and its benign status as the best means of controlling Gypsy Moths, several Grahamites were concerned about the proposed spraying.
“The state is overzealous,” Barbara M. told the Mountain News. “We don’t have a problem with Gypsy Moths in Graham, but the state says we do – but it’s nothing like Back East.”
Barbara said that she grew up in New Jersey and is very familiar with Gypsy Moths, claiming that the damage to trees is minimal, as the caterpillars only eat around the edges of the leaves and then move on to juicier niblings.
However, that perspective is directly refuted by an official of the Pierce County Bee-Keeping Association who is originally from Pennsylvania, and he says he has seen entire hillsides stripped bare of vegetation.
The WSDA website touts that kind of impact from unchecked GM infestations, and adds that entire ecosystems can be devastated as the trees die due to the loss of their leaves, then followed by severe soil erosion when the trees are no longer able to control water run-off during rainstorms.
But Barbara’s concerns are echoed by Ray Cool, the former leader of the Graham Self-Reliant Community, who also attended the WSDA meeting.
“There were more state officials in the room than Graham residents,” Cool said, “and the state made it seem like they were more interested in protecting the trees of the timber companies than the health of local residents.”
Mr. Cool also told the Mountain News that he is concerned about the added chemicals to the spraying compound. “They said that the BTK is only 10% of the total amount of the spray – and when we asked what’s in the rest of the spray, they told us they couldn’t tell us because it’s a proprietary secret of the chemical company that makes the stuff.”
An official of the WSDA, Karla Salp, directly addressed those concerns with the Mountain News. In an email she wrote:
“Components of the spray are protected and I don’t know what they are. The Washington State Department of Health, however, has been able to examine all of the contents of the spray. While they cannot release the contents, they did examine them and found that they were unlikely to pose any public health concern.”
Similarly, on the WSDA’s Gypsy Moth website the state claims that in forty years of spraying only two individuals have complained on negative health consequences, and both people had serious pre-existing health concerns.
Specifically, the spraying will be conducted in the early morning hours depending on weather conditions, and the state will give the affected area two more applications, most likely 5-14 days apart. Hence the spraying should be concluded by early June.
The spray will be applied by a fixed-wing aircraft, according to Mr. Louisell, and is a very sticky substance. Ms. Salp suggested that concerned residents should use tarps to cover BBQs, cars, and toys left outside. In addition, she said that her vehicle has been subjected to a spraying and that the residue washed off easily in a car wash.
Salp also told the Mountain News that she will personally be on site for the Graham spraying to help coordinate the program, assist residents, and answer questions.
Despite the state’s assurances, however, some remain skeptical. Cool told the Mountain News that the state officials acknowledged the over-spray and drift may be as much as one-mile from the targeted area, adding to health concerns. Cool wrote an email to the Mountain News and sounded downright angry.
“Health impacts? How would they know?” he wrote. “Do they monitor everyone in the spray zone for years to track any health issues? I seriously doubt it.”
Regarding health issues, especially breathing difficulties, Salp offered the following:
“The Department of Health…recommends as a precautionary measure that people close windows and stay inside for 30 minutes after the spray. In 2016 our biggest complaint was from people whose cars were sticky after treatments.”
Mr. Louisell added that those concerned about the spray seeping in a home can air-out the house several hours after the spraying, especially if the day is sunny as sunshine and good weather breaks down the spray compounds lingering in the atmosphere.
But in all this turmoil, some community good may arise for all.
“We need an Integrative Pest Management program, whereby we could physically remove the Gypsy Moths from the trees and bushes,” said Barbara. “Neighbors and children could be taught how to identify the Gypsy Moths – distinguishing a Gypsy Moth caterpillar from a Tent caterpillar, which looks just like it – and crush it so it doesn’t reproduce or strip away a tree.”
She added that local groups, such as the Boy Scouts, Bethel after-school programs, and the Eco-Explorers of Graham, include Gypsy Moth control as part of their outdoor education program.
“What I’m really looking for is a paradigm shift,” said Barbara, “from a top-heavy bureaucratic response to a more localized, hands-on effort to control Gypsy Moths.”
Regarding the WSDA’s program, the spraying will be in a rectangular area bordering from just west of Meridian to 88th Street, and from 200th St. E north to approximately 187th Street. It is estimated to be 300 acres in area, about one-half mile by a mile.
For a map of the targeted area:
For more information on the WSDA’s Gypsy Moth control program:
For health impacts:
Editor’s Note: Several Mountain News readers have asked about impacts to birds, pets, and plants from the BTK spraying. The WSDA website claims that the BTK has no known negative health impacts on mammals, animals, fish, birds, or plant life.
A Gypsy Moth caterpillar
The WSDA posts these Gypsy Moth traps throughout suspected areas in the summer. If they collect sufficient numbers of adult, male GMs, then they schedule a spraying for the following spring. Above pictures courtesy of the WSDA.
Gypsy Moths eating leaves. Despite its gruesome appearance, Natalie M. claims that this defoliation is not extensive enough to destroy the trees. Rather, she claims it is a “seasonal defoliation.” Photo above and below are provided by Natalie M., courtesy of the Internet.
Note: Bruce A. Smith is a long-time investigative journalist and is also the author of DB Cooper and the FBI – A Case Study of America’s Only Unsolved Skyjacking.