Invasions by tree-destroying pests are hardly unknown in New Brunswick, where the spruce budworm goes on an annual tear. Still, the province was hardly prepared for the latest assault on its forests—by an overlarge creepycrawly called the forest tent caterpillar. Attacking a variety of hardwood species, including trembling aspen and
white birch, the caterpillars this spring have stripped bare thousands of acres in the St. John River Valley and even driven people from their homes.
“I’m getting a tremendous number of calls,” says Thaddée Renault, a treepest extension officer with the Canadian Forestry Service in Fredericton. “People are desperate. They say, ‘What can we do?’ or ‘What can you do?’ ” Precious little, as it turns out. Renault says any effort at controlling the caterpillars at this late date (by spraying with pesticides, for example) is doomed to failure because the pests are so abun-
dant: “All people can do is try to bear it, even if they can’t grin about it.”
For some, even that has been too tall an order. A family in the hard-hit Woodstock area moved out for nine days after millions of the caterpillars, which are blueish brown with white keyhole-shaped spots and can measure up to five cm in length, invaded their trees, even the sides of their house. Other families were forced from their homes on the Tobique Indian Reserve, and huge numbers of caterpillars could be seen crossing the Trans-Canada Highway along the river valley.
Fortunately, the problem is more esthetic than economic. Unlike the spruce budworm, whose defoliating habit eventually kills spruce and fir trees, the damage wrought by the tent caterpillar to date is not likely to be permanent. Pest officer Renault says that after another year of voracious munching the caterpillar will probably eat itself out of house and home and become prey to a virus or parasite. When that happens, the epidemic will collapse and the trees will recover. Even later this year there should be partial re-greening, thanks to latent buds which the pest doesn’t get at. Until then, however, the grey slashes of defoliated forest will continue to give parts of the St. John Valley the look of a place where summer forgot to arrive.
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