Spruce Budworm Epidemic Headed for Maine

Apr 21, 2014

One of the most damaging native insects of spruce and fir trees is wreaking havoc in Quebec, where it has defoliated eight million acres of forest over the last several years.  Forestry officials are now bracing for an imminent outbreak of spruce budworm in neighboring New Brunswick, one of the most forestry-dependent provinces in Canada.  And here in Maine there are fears that the voracious insect could start destroying forest stands in the next two to four years.  Now, steps are underway to fight back.

Every 40 years or so, for reasons that are not entirely clear, there's a cyclical population explosion of spruce budworms that feed on spruce and fir, overun the forest and defoliate entire trees and forest stands.  In Maine, the last outbreak began in about 1970 and ended in 1985.

"For years I didn't know what a green forest looked like.  And, very frankly, I remember thinking: 'This is the end,'" says Doug Denico, director of the Maine Forest Service. Denico worked for International Paper, and then Scott Paper, at the time of the last outbreak.  He didn't think the Maine woods or the forest products industry would ever bounce back.

"The budworm's kind of a messy eater," Denico says. "It just eats a little bit of a needle and then spins a web and the needle stays there, and then, come July, those needles die and they turn red.  And I remember flying over town after town and all you saw was spruce and fir that was just red colored.  And then after that most of the foliage was gone.  The forest turned gray and then it's dead.  It was a frightening time."

According to the Maine Forest Products Council, the outbreak killed more than 20 percent of fir trees. But it also led to heavy spraying of insecticides, and later, bacterial agents.  Efforts to salvage dead and dying trees followed.  And between the aerial spraying and the buzz of equipment in the Maine Woods, a backlash of negative public opinion ensued that eventually led to limits on clearcutting and the establishment of the Maine Forest Practices Act.  

Patrick Strauch, of the Maine Forest Products Council, says this time things will be different.  This time landowners hope to stay ahead of the bug and do targeted, pre-salvage cutting.

"It doesn't mean we'll over-harvest the land.  It means we'll change and cut more spruce and fir than we do hardwood," Strauch says. "It doesn't mean a lot of spraying over every acre of land.  B-52 bombers won't be part of the new Maine Forest.  It will be very targeted and we have a lot of rules and regulations that protect from drift, too.  So, it's a very different environment that we'd be working in."
"You know, there is a myth building out there in some of the public that we're going to have this massive spray program like we did in the past," says Doug Denico of the Maine Forest Service. Denico says that myth should be put to bed.

"It cannot happen for many resasons," he says. "Just the structure of the forest says 'No.'  We don't have town after town of mature fir.  It's more isolated, and rest assured, that won't happen.  What we are going to try to concentrate on is pre-salvage and not let this thing get out of hand.  Pre-salvage is the answer to reduced spraying."

Not only are the spruce and fir younger and smaller and less desirable for sawmills, but land ownership patterns have changed dramatically since the late 70's and early 80's.  Back then, it was a vertically-integrated system, where paper companies owned the land and employed the workers who harvested the wood for paper.  Now it's generally not a paper company that owns the land, but an investment firm.  And the interests are different for the long-term.    

That's part of the reason, this time around, the University of Maine is doing modeling to help landowners plan ahead.  Dave Struble is the state entomologist.

"The cooperative forest research unit has been working with the University of New Brunswick in building hazard maps based upon where there were problems in the past; the current mix of wood," Struble says. "So, assuming that it is as good here as it is over there, we have a fix on where it's most likelty be a problem."

Struble also has a pretty good idea that it won't be long before the budworm's arrival in northern Maine. There are always naturally occurring numbers.  But over the past two years, Struble says there's been a four-fold increase in budworms showing up in traps.

Learn more about the Spruce budworm.