Researchers Hope to Stop Emerald Ash Borer before It Reaches Maine

Contact: Darren Ranco, (207) 581-1801, William Livingston, (207) 581-2990; Robert Lilieholm, (207) 581-2896

ORONO. Maine — The emerald ash borer, which already has devastated ash tree populations in states like Michigan and Ohio, and is now found in New York and the province of Quebec, is threatening Maine’s ash and thousands of forest-related jobs, including Native American basketmaking.

In an effort to research this potentially devastating new invasive species and minimize its impact, basketmakers, tribal members, state and federal agencies, and University of Maine researchers have joined forces.

“If this resource goes away, it’s devastating on a couple of levels,” says Darren Ranco, associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of Native American research at UMaine.

Basketmaking is a substantial part of tribal culture and is important economically to the weavers. Made from native brown ash trees, Maine Indian baskets are functional art forms that have been passed down through generations of the state’s Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes.

The Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance serves as one of the principal investigators on the ongoing project, along with Ranco, forest policy professor Rob Lilieholm and associate professor of forest recreation management John Daigle.

Since 2009, the researchers have received $173,000 in grants from Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative and the National Science Foundation’s EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) Program to bring together interested parties and start examining what has happened in other areas. The grant funding continues the work through June 2011.

The research team has been consulting with tribal representatives and using state-of-the-art computer software modeling to better identify locations of brown ash stands and implementing outreach activities to educate the public about the problem. They also are working with the tribes and Native American youth to collect ash seeds as a resource for future generations in the event the emerald ash borer does devastate Maine’s ash resources.

The emerald ash borer is an exotic green beetle discovered in southeastern Michigan in 2002. While the adult beetles eat ash foliage and cause little damage, the larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees, disrupting the tree’s ability to transport water and nutrients.

Maine is ahead of other states in trying to prevent and manage the invasion before it occurs, but its eventual presence in the state is likely inevitable, explains UMaine associate professor of forest resources William Livingston.

The most important of those management practices is preventing people from transporting wood into the state from other areas, says Livingston, who, with colleagues, successfully urged the passage in January of LD 1607, An Act to Regulate the Transportation of Firewood, signed by Gov. Baldacci into law April 1.

“The longer it takes to get here, the better chance of natural predators or parasites — either native or introduced — to reduce the population,” Livingston says. Ash is a common landscaping tree in Maine, and according to Livingston, “almost all of the planted ash trees in urban areas are likely to be killed by the borer after it gets here. This is what happened in the Detroit area.”

While ash represents only a small percentage of forest trees in Maine, at 427 million trees, it is still a significant resource.

“The relative impact on Maine forests will be small commercially as far as wood volume, but where ash does have value, that means it’s really threatened,” Livingston says.

A UMaine Today magazine article has additional details.