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Toxic browntail moth caterpillars overwhelm parts of Maine

"People are really devastated by this," one resident said.
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Warm, dry weather in Maine this spring helped fuel an explosion of browntail moth caterpillars, a toxic pest that has left residents reeling and officials struggling to manage their soaring numbers.

The caterpillars, which are active between April and mid-summer, have tiny, toxic hairs that can cause rashes and respiratory problems — not to mention branch dieback and tree death. And their population is booming in coastal and inland areas where there are plenty of trees to host their webs, state forest officials said.

Linda Cohen, the town manager of Monmouth, a small town an hour north of Portland, told NBC affiliate WCSH that reports of the poisonous pests are worse this year than any other she could recall.

But Jim Britt, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, told the station that the state is limited in how it can respond.

Mass-spraying, he said, is “not feasible for a long list of reasons, such as budget concerns, society’s feelings towards pesticides, the sheer number of acres that we would need to try to spray.”

The invasive species, which was accidentally introduced from Europe in 1897, was the subject of a massive mitigation effort in the early 20th century. A federal quarantine was instituted, tens of thousands of webs were burned and cut and predators were used to blunt their growth.

But the state has seen consistently rising population numbers since 2015 and recent surveys found the caterpillar in 16 counties, WCSH reported.

Bob Carr, whose Monmouth cabin was covered in the tiny pests this year, told WCSH that some of his trees had been stripped of their leaves. He and his partner used an industrial vacuum and soap and water to clear them from the roof and other surfaces.

“People are really devastated by this,” he said.