MARLBOROUGH, Conn. – Mention the gypsy moth caterpillar infestations of the early 1980s to anyone who lived in Connecticut at the time and watch them squirm.

The hairy larvae were everywhere – crawling up and down tree trunks, falling on people’s heads and defoliating about 1.5 million acres in the process. It sounded like rain when the creepy crawlies dropped from the trees by the thousands.

“They were crossing the road in herds. You’d splatter them with your tires,” recalled James Parda, forestry supervisor for the Department of Environmental Protection’s state forestry management program.

Guess what? They’re baaaack.

Residents of eastern Connecticut began seeing the pests again five years ago, munching on tasty scarlet and white oak tree leaves.

But the good news is their numbers this year pale in comparison to the ’80s. And it is questionable whether Connecticut will suffer another massive gypsy-moth infestation, thanks to a fungus, discovered by scientists at the state’s Agricultural Experiment Station, that has helped kill off many gypsy moth caterpillars.

“I think those days are over,” said Kirby C. Stafford III, the state entomologist, of the massive outbreaks. “It’s really the fungus that’s doing the job.”

Other states haven’t been so lucky.

Major invasions of gypsy moths are occurring in the Mid-Atlantic region, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia and Maryland, said Rob Mangold, director of forest health protection at the U.S. Forest Service. His agency is helping states to keep the infestations from spreading, using biological pesticides and other methods.

“We’re learning to live with gypsy moths. It’s here to stay. It’s been here 150 years, it comes and goes, but we are successfully slowing down its greater advancement,” he said.

Gypsy moths are not a native insect. A French scientist, Leopold Trouvelot, brought them from Europe to Massachusetts in 1869. He was attempting to breed the insect for silk production and some escaped from his rearing facility. By the early 1900s, gypsy moths were defoliating large areas of New England.

This year in Connecticut, the pests are limited mostly to a triangular area in the eastern part of the state that encompasses Marlborough, Hebron, Colchester and Salem. DEP officials said the dry spring is likely a key reason why there was an infestation, which they consider to be mild. The gypsy moth fungus thrives in wet weather and kills the larvae during late developmental stages.

“There seems to be kind of a consistent level of gypsy moth activity there, over time,” said Christopher R. Martin, the state forester. “From year to year it will expand or contract. A lot has to do with the moisture in the spring.”

No spraying has been done in Connecticut. Instead, foresters like Will Hochholzer are keeping a close eye on the problem. He is one of six who oversee 32 separate state forests that cover approximately 170,000 acres. That’s 28,000 acres per forester.

On a recent hike through the Salmon River State Forest, damage from the caterpillars was visible. Leaves on many of the oaks were nibbled down to nothing, barren canopies floating above the forest. Some trees have already succumbed to the gypsy moths.

But many were trying to sprout a second set of leaves, now that the caterpillars have turned into moths – many of which have already laid eggs for next year and finished their short life cycles. Buff colored masses, which contain about 100 to 1,000 eggs, appear glued to the tree trunks and branches like fuzzy stickers.

“We’ll definitely expect to see gypsy moths in here next year,” said Hochholzer, looking over patches of eggs, which will bleach out over the winter months.

State officials plan to conduct egg mass surveys this fall. In the meantime, they’ve begun aerial inspections of the state forests to determine the damage from gypsy moths and other pests. In 2007, there were more than 3,200 acres of gypsy-moth defoliation. In 2006, the problem was worse, with more than 251,000 acres damaged to some degree, In 2005, more than 64,000 acres were affected, Stafford said.

Hochholzer said he worries how long the trees can survive the caterpillars.

“They can take a couple of defoliations, but if you really have something greater than 50 percent of the crown defoliated over a couple years in a row, then you start to worry about mortality,” he said.

Because the foresters are responsible for keeping state forests safe for recreational use, Hochholzer said he’s concerned about falling branches and dead trees that could topple over and injure a hunter or hiker.

If the gypsy-moth outbreaks continue, he said many oaks in the Salmon River forest may die off, especially if there is a drought or other types of infestations.

“But forests are resilient. More oaks are going to be in here. This white oak will be part of the next forest,” Hochholzer said, brushing his hand through a sapling’s green leaves. “It will be mixed with red maples and black birch. So I am concerned about this particular age class of trees, but there will be more forest. It will just change.”

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