City bids farewell to Asian beetle

Officials gathered yesterday in Ravenswood, the epicenter of an infestation that ravaged thousands of trees, to mark the Asian longhorned beetle's demise.

The press conference capped a decade of efforts by a variety of government and community groups to stamp out the destructive beetle.

Officials say they hope that lessons learned from the collaborative effort can be applied toward stopping a new invasive species: the Emerald Ash Borer.

"One of the best things for the public to do is to realize the role they played in this battle," says Bruce Knight, undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Simply by being aware and careful about things like moving firewood, citizens played a huge role in the eradication effort."

Illinois' first beetle was discovered in Ravenswood in 1998. The last infestation was detected around Oz Park in 2003, and a state quarantine was lifted in July of 2006. The insect hasn't been sighted in over four years of active surveys since the last infestation and can now be declared officially eradicated in Illinois, according to the USDA.

The shiny, black, bullet-shaped beetle is about 1 1/2 inches long, with white specks and long antennae. It is believed to have traveled into the United States in wooden packing materials in Chinese crates.

The beetle's larvae bore deep into  maple, birch, horse chestnut, elm and ash trees, eventually killing them by cutting off their circulatory systems.

According to the USDA, Illinois is the first state to eradicate the beetle, through a combination of tree removal and chemical applications.

Frank Castillo, a Forest Service firefighter from Montana, reminisced after the ceremony about the role of smokejumpers in the eradication effort.

Smokejumpers, who parachute into wildfires in the western states, played a key role in climbing trees during the efforts to locate the beetle.

Once they found them, often at the tops of trees and on the ends of limbs, the host tree would be removed, chipped and incinerated.

"It was a very unique assignment, but one we got a handle on very well once we got going," says Castillo.

The effort reached a peak in 2000 when 54 smoke jumpers from five states scaled trees on daily basis in Chicago, he says.

Those in attendance voiced hope that lessons from this collaborative effort can be applied toward the eradication of a new invasive species: the Emerald Ash Borer.

But officials say the Emerald Ash Borer represents a new -- and in some ways more challenging -- threat.

The ash borer, an Asian beetle discovered in the U.S. in 2002, produces larvae that feed on the inner bark of ash trees. They have been found recently in the northern suburbs.

Whereas longhorned beetles leave prominent signs of infestation and are slow-moving critters, the ash borer leaves only dime-sized holes and is quicker, says Knight.

Joe McCarthy, who headed tree removal during the eradication effort, says that effort led the state has put together an Emerald Ash Bore readiness team.

But he says that it's more important than ever for the public to be vigilant.

"Just as they did with the longhorned beetle, citizens are going to be the first line of defense in identifying this new invasive species," says McCarthy.