As the mild winter enters its final weeks, the three-killing southern pine beetle is showing disconcerting sights of early activity in the Pinelands and South Jersey and the state Department of Environmental Protection is gearing up to confront the pest.
The DEP announced Thursday that it is making suppression grants available to private landowners, municipalities, counties and local groups to attempt to eradicate the nuisance.
"The DEP is preparing for another year of aggressive actions to protect our Pinelands forests," Commissioner Bob Martin said. "We've already launched our aerial surveillance flights well ahead of schedule and have begun cutting infested trees on state lands due to early pine beetle activity.
"While it's difficult to predict what the coming season will be like, we have to be prepared to fight the pine beetle on all fronts," Martin said. "We are redoubling our efforts, working with our partners at the state Pinelands Commission and with local governments to continue to fight this pest."
Currently 26 cities and towns in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties have been notified that they appear to have infestations. Spotty pine beetle activity has been detected in areas as far north as Ocean County.
The impact of the beetles in 2011 was less than anticipated, possibly because pine trees have been less stressed due to abundant rainfall. The DEP estimates that nearly 7,000 acres were lost to pine beetle infestations last year, much less than the estimated 14,000 acres that were affected in 2010, a year of low precipitation.
The beetles are about the size of a grain of rice. Infestations are marked by the sudden onset of yellowish needles that quickly turn brown. Infestations usually are not recognizable until small stands of trees are affected. The bark of infested trees may show numerous excretions of yellowish-white sap oozing from tubes that the beetles bore into the bark.
"We should not be lulled into a false sense of complacency," state Forester Lynn Fleming said. "The southern pine beetle, which has been a big problem in the southeastern United States for many years, is relatively new to New Jersey."
As part of its efforts to ratchet up the war on pine beetles, the DEP is enlisting the assistance of the DEP Science Advisory Team to better understand its behavior patterns in New Jersey. For example, the pine beetle may be able to withstand winters in New Jersey because pitch pine trees it infest tend to have thicker bark that may provide more insulation than Southern tree species, Fleming said.
The DEP has also prepared an informational tool kit to assist municipalities and private landowners in taking action to prevent the spread of pine beetles using grants that are now available.