CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE _ Paul Kurtz is a bug detective of sorts who came up with the idea of using zoo patrons to try to track down invasive tree-eating pests.
The strange project brought Kurtz, an entomologist with the state Department of Agriculture, to the Cape May County Zoo on Wednesday to unveil a new display, with similar ones going up at the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange and the World of Wings in Teaneck.
It’s simple enough. A colorful forest scene shows two particularly destructive bugs, Asian invaders, called the emerald ash borer and the Asian longhorned beetle. The two bugs are a threat to New Jersey’s forests.
The display has four cutouts that children can put their heads in and get their picture taken. Families flock to such displays at tourist areas, and this is a zoo that gets 500,000 visitors a year.
“The response has been amazing,” said Jean Whalen, an assistant county parks director. “Almost every family that walks through the zoo cannot pass without stopping to get a photo of their smiling child’s face in the eye-catching display.”
That means thousands of pictures will be taken with images of the emerald ash borer and Asian longhorned beetle. That means thousands of people will be able to identify them if they come across them in the woods.
Cape May County Freeholder Marie Hayes, who was at the unveiling Wednesday, watched as a steady stream of kids flocked to the display.
“The picture is of the kids but that information is now in the pictures,” said Hayes.
The reason it just may work is almost every infestation of foreign pests the department discovers is reported by members of the public. Government workers can’t be everywhere. Kurtz notes that the nation has an estimated 250 million ash trees, the species the emerald ash borer feeds on.
Kurtz said the public should get on board because the health of the forests impacts everyone. It isn’t just about the trees.
“You need a diverse forest to have a healthy forest and if you start removing tree species everything from the wildlife to the soil changes,” said Kurtz.
Kurtz noted the state’s ash forests run from the north down the Delaware Bay coast. Several species of mammals and bats, even two types of mosses, have evolved for this type of forest. Removing the ash would allow more sunlight in, change the soil pH and possibly wipe out these mosses. It has implications from the bottom to the top of the food chain.
“You can actually cause an extinction,” said Kurtz.
The Asian ash borer has been found in Somerset, Burlington and Mercer counties. It has not yet made it to the shore region. State Assemblyman Robert Andrzejczak, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, wants to be proactive. He recalls the gypsy moth getting out of control and decimating forests in southern New Jersey and doesn’t want to see that happen again.
“The gypsy moth used to be a big problem. At least now we know how to manage it and keep it under control,” said Andrzejczak, who chairs the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
Kurtz said the emerald ash borer can fly 10 miles so it can spread quickly. The Asian longhorned beetle only flies one mile, and usually just goes tree to tree, so is easier to control. Infestations in Jersey City in 2008 and in Middlesex and Union counties in 2013 were likely eradicated.
“We’re still looking for it. There’s always a chance a female could have gone somewhere else,” said Kurtz.
The beetle feasts on maple, ash, birch, elm, popular, horse chestnut and other hardwood trees. One infestation began with wooden pallets carrying weightlifting equipment to Brooklyn, N.Y. Kurtz said pallets from foreign counties are now treated with heat and chemicals to kill invasive pests.
Another problem is moving firewood around. Kurtz said the standard rule is firewood should not be moved more than 50 miles. He also noted the larvae of the pests are often not seen. Some tree diseases have come from foreign pathogens on the pests, such as the one killing American chestnut trees.
“Sometimes it’s not the insect. It’s the pathogen they carry,” Kurtz noted.
With a global economy these days, Kurtz does not expect his job or those of his counterparts at the USDA to get any easier.
“You shut one door and two open up. There is always something out there to be on the lookout for,” he noted.
Joseph Zoltowski, director of the department’s Division of Plant Industry, is urging the public to become part of the solution.
“Most invasive insects are reported by private landowners and we go out and investigate,” said Zoltowski.
The first appearances of the emerald ash borer and the Asian longhorned beetle were both reported by citizens.
The public can report sightings to the department at (609) 406-6939 or call the local agricultural extension agent.