Federal grants to help Washington combat pests

Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldMay 10, 2014 

Recent federal grants will help Washington continue to deploy a buggy SWAT team to eradicate menacing snails and hunt for exotic, invasive moths that love to munch on grapes.

Those snails and moths threaten the state's agricultural economy by limiting its ability to export about $8.6 billion worth of food products out of its ports each year.

The state and its universities were awarded almost $816,000 for pest prevention and management projects by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, using money made available in the recently approved federal farm bill.

Farm bill funding has become an important part of pest detection, helping the state supplement cuts from other areas, said Jim Marra, the state Department of Agriculture acting pest program manager.

The state used to get money from the USDA's Cooperative Agricultural Pest Survey to pay for pest detection, but that program has been slashed dramatically, Marra said. Farm bill funding pays for efforts that couldn't otherwise be done.

A $50,000 grant will pay to eradicate vineyard snails, which destroy wheat and grain crops and have set up temporary digs at the Port of Tacoma.

The snails attach themselves to objects such as cargo containers and vehicles and then get carried along, Marra said.

The pest has not spread into agricultural areas of the state yet, and it's important to get rid of them before they can get that far, Marra said.

If the snails set up residence permanently, it would result in trade restrictions. Wheat is the state's second-most valued commodity after apples, with a 2012 value of $1.2 billion, according to the USDA.

The infestation has shrunk from about 300 acres to about 20 acres owned by the port and adjacent to port property. The effort has involved removing debris, wood piles and garbage and cutting back vegetation that allows snails to hide, Marra said. Officials have used a pesticide. It still may take a couple more years to completely kill off all of them.

"Snails are very difficult to eradicate," Marra said.

A $94,000 grant will pay for setting traps to detect pests in grape-growing areas. The idea is to detect them early, before they gain a foothold.

The traps are placed where invasive insects might enter, such as near nurseries and in vineyards near nurseries, Marra said. Traps also are placed near backyard vineyards.

The European grapevine moth is of particular concern because it's already established in California, Marra said. While officials haven't found any so far, it is among the most likely to travel into the state.

The moth is very destructive, with larvae penetrating into grapes and destroying the fruit, he said.

A $139,000 grant will help the Western States Lepidoptera Diagnostic Center create screening aids and identification keys for other states to use when trying to identify moths and then train other states how to use them, Marra said.

The lab tests moths caught in Washington's trapping programs, along with some from other states, Marra said. They check for European grapevine moths and two others that the state doesn't want to see establish a population -- the grape leafroller, which eats grape leaves, and the European grape berry moth, which damages the fruit.

Identifying the moths can be fairly complex because of how small they are, Marra said. Some are maybe a half an inch or so. Sometimes it takes dissecting the moth and examining it under a microscope to figure out what it is.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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