A browntail moth caterpillar is shown June 2 between Jameson Dow, left, and classmate Charlie Ferris, both 10, in a tree at Ferris’s home in Waterville. Dow discovered that the caterpillars had invaded a tree in the front yard of the Ferris home. The were able to spot four of the caterpillars on low hanging limbs. The caterpillar, which has two distinctive reddish dots, has poisonous hairs that can cause a rash if exposed to skin. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

WATERVILLE — Officials plan to start attacking a serious browntail moth problem since the City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to allocate $100,000 to the effort in the 2021-22 municipal budget.

The 7-0 vote followed a recommendation by Councilor Thomas Klepach, D-Ward 3, to approve the request. He said the city will be in trouble if it doesn’t address the infestation now and it is important to get area communities involved to develop a comprehensive, regional approach to the problem.

Maine state officials also should join the effort, said Klepach, a faculty member in the biology department at Colby College.

“We need the state to get on the stick,” he said. “The state needs to be involved.”

Klepach presented a browntail moth mitigation plan Tuesday night designed to interrupt the increase in the moths’ presence, which has caused many people to suffer skin rashes and respiratory problems. He brought the browntail moth infestation issue to the attention of city officials June 1 when he reported he had received calls and emails from constituents affected by browntail.

Microscopic, poisonous hairs shed by browntail moth caterpillars cause rashes similar to those caused by poison ivy. If inhaled, the airborne hairs may cause respiratory issues. Klepach’s mitigation plan calls for filing a formal declaration of a public health nuisance with the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention to allow for spending public funds on both public and private property, with permission from private landowners, and advocate for state-level action and resources for municipalities.

A browntail moth inventory also should be created, according to Klepach, who has recommended the city get permission to treat affected private property, clip and destroy accessible browntail moth webs manually, plan for spring insecticide treatment and inject trees with inaccessible webs.

On Tuesday, Klepach laid out the impacts of browntail moth on quality of life, health and property values.

“There are instances of people getting these things in their eyes, which you definitely don’t want to see the pictures in my powerpoint of what that’s like to deal with,” he said.

Klepach said people are attracted to Waterville for its lushly-wooded region, and the pests defoliate that greenery.

“I can tell you if we do nothing, then it is going to be almost certainly worse next year,” he said.

The climate is changing in a way that is more conducive to the natural habitat of the pest, he said, noting the browntail infestation in the city a century ago that did a lot of damage.

“The pest is going to feel more at home in the Maine of 2020 than the Maine of 1920,” he said.

Councilor Rebecca Green, D-Ward 4, emphasized the importance of area communities also getting involved in the effort.

A browntail moth caterpillar is shown June 2 after falling from a tree near Head of Falls in Waterville and onto a notepad. The caterpillar, which has two distinctive reddish dots, has poisonous hairs that can cause a rash if exposed to skin. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

“I’d hate to see us spend $100,000, only to see the wind blow from Winslow,” she said.

Mayor Jay Coelho urged officials of surrounding municipalities to talk with Waterville officials about it, and for state officials to get on board also.

“Gov. Mills, if you’re listening, we’ll give you Klepach on loan,” he said.

Councilor Rick Foss, R-Ward 5, thanked Klepach for his research and work on the comprehensive mitigation plan, which includes $25,000 as part of the $100,000 for tick mitigation. “I’m in on this,” Foss said.

Green echoed Foss’ comments, saying if including funds for mitigation in the budget can show councilors are serious about tacking the problem, she is all for it.

“I think we need to do something,” she said, adding to Klepach: “I feel like we got a pro-bono study out of your councilorship, so thank you.”


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