It may seem like this year’s itchy infestation of browntail moth caterpillars came as a surprise. But that’s not quite true.

Officials knew at least by last June that the dry weather of summer 2020 was setting the perfect conditions for the pests to come out this year. They also knew that the caterpillars, whose microscopic hairs cause skin rashes and respiratory problems, and who can harm and even kill trees, were spreading out across Maine, after being centered mostly around the coast.

But the population exploded much the same, taking a lot of the joy out of being outdoors and making yard work a hazard to health. Browntail moths are now a statewide problem, and by next year, we better have a statewide solution — for many Mainers, these pests put quality of life at risk.

Just like the infestation, the damage has been widespread. In a state survey conducted in February, 54 municipalities were found to have high populations of the caterpillars. The populations were highest in Androscoggin, Cumberland, Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc and Waldo counties, but nests were found in every corner of the state.

Many of the hardest-hit communities were in central Maine, where stores were running out of itch creams and other remedies, and Waterville was forced to declare a public emergency. The pests are all over the Bangor area, too, and they are threatening the survival of a beloved tree in Portland’s Deering Oaks park.

They have given rashes to countless Mainers out mowing their lawns or taking hikes. It’s enough to make you rethink going outdoors — a turn of events simply unsustainable for Maine springs and summers.


Clearly, Maine was caught off guard. Each municipality was largely left to deal with its own infestation by itself, perhaps the right way to do things when the infestations were few and far between.

But now that dozens of communities are dealing with the browntail moth, the calculation has changed. While each municipality has a duty to deal with infestations within its border — someone has to go from tree to tree, looking for nests, and it makes sense to have knowledgeable locals do the job — these communities need additional state support and resources so that they can tackle the problem the right way.

As we endure another dry summer, with climate change bringing more and more of them our way, we can expect more big years for the browntail moth. But by the time they hit each summer it’s largely too late.

Instead, it’s best to take out their webs in the winter. Maine officials should start planning now for mitigation efforts next year. We shouldn’t fool around with a pest that threatens the joy of Maine summers.


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