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Southern pine beetle now threatening pines in 7 LI locations

John Wernet, of the DEC, holds a piece

John Wernet, of the DEC, holds a piece of bark that has a southern pine beetle attached in Hampton Bays, Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

A deadly, fast-moving forest pest first discovered on Long Island this past fall has since been found in four additional pine stands in Suffolk County -- and officials are worried the infestation could be even more extensive.

The southern pine beetle -- native to the southern United States and known as one of the most destructive forest pests in the nation -- was first confirmed in the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Shirley, the Connetquot River State Park Preserve in Oakdale, and the Henry's Hollow Pine Barrens State Forest in Hampton Bays.

Since then, the beetle has been seen in these Long Island state parks: Belmont Lake in North Babylon, Heckscher in East Islip, Brookhaven in Wading River, and the Bayard Cutting Arboretum in Great River, said George Gorman, deputy regional director of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

The beetle will attack all types of pine trees but prefers pitch pines, which constitute most of Long Island's pine barrens. The state estimates the beetle already has killed 75 percent of the pitch pines in the Connetquot River State Park Preserve.

"We're concerned," Gorman said. "We want to make sure we don't lose a significant amount of our trees due to the infestation."

The beetle is responsible for killing thousands of acres of pine trees in the United States. While each beetle is about the size of a grain of rice, the pest overwhelms a tree's defenses through sheer numbers, weakening and killing it before flying to the next tree.

"Essentially it's like a wildfire," said John Wernet, regional forester with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Last month, Wernet took two aerial surveys over Long Island to assess the extent of the infestation. From the air it's seen as patches of brown and yellow in what normally would be an expanse of green forest.

Since then, he's been walking through the affected stands to mark the boundaries of the infestation -- a process known as "ground truthing."

"It's a little more spread than we thought," Wernet said during one recent walk through the Hampton Bays forest.

He chiseled some bark off a dying tree to reveal a maze of beetle tracks underneath -- the telltale sign of the southern pine beetle.

"This tree looks like it has hundreds of adults burrowed into it," he said -- in other words, a goner.

Experts don't know how the beetle got to Long Island, but Gorman said one thing is clear.

"We're never going to eradicate it, apparently," he said. "The experts say suppress it, keep it under control, and that's what we're doing."

Kevin Dodds, a forest entomologist with the United States Forest Service in Durham, New Hampshire, agreed.

"It's going to be a constant program now of continual survey, finding new infestations as they pop up, and dealing with those however New York decides to go forward," he said.

Efforts to stanch the beetle's progress in other states have included cutting down infected trees and the surrounding healthy trees, although the DEC said it has not yet decided on a method of stopping the beetle here.

However, Gorman said the state parks department has successfully stopped the spread of the pest at Belmont Lake, which had just a small infestation, by cutting trees.

"We were able to take those trees down and remove the threat right away," he said.

Other places with more extensive infestations, like Connetquot or the Bayard Cutting Arboretum -- known primarily for its trees -- will be more difficult to tackle, he said.

"In many of the parks that are involved, the trees are what the public comes to look at and enjoy," Gorman said. "We want to address that and do it in the right way."

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