Australian Bug Imported to Fight Pesky Plant in U.S. Everglades

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Government agencies have spent millions of dollars trying to eradicate the papery-barked tree, using a "hack and squirt" method in which crews carve the trunks with machetes and spray them with herbicide. But the crews have to keep going back to kill new saplings, and most melaleucas are off-limits on private land.

Despite the insects' promise, any tinkering with ecology is fraught with possible unknown consequences, and federal regulators still have a hoop or two that must be jumped through before they authorize the psyllid's release.

After all, Florida is teeming with noxious plants and critters—from the Brazilian pepper to the slithering, sex-changing Asian swamp eel—that someone once considered a worthwhile addition to the state's ecological mix. The melaleuca itself was supposed to beautify the state while helping to drain the Everglades.

Concerns About Consequences

What if these new insects turn into pests themselves—for instance, if they adapt to their new surroundings by developing a taste for oranges?

"In the actual environment, we don't have control over what we brought in," said Laurie Macdonald, an activist with Defenders of Wildlife, who warns against "the Jurassic Park syndrome" in tinkering with nature. "Granted, the melaleuca is a huge problem, but we don't want to replicate the problem," she said.

Other environmental groups say they're satisfied that years of research on the insects have provided enough safeguards.

"The USDA has been very careful about how it releases these insects," said Mark Kraus, conservation director for Audubon of Florida. "This is a lot different from, 'Hey, let's bring melaleuca over because it will dry up the Everglades,' or, 'Let's bring marine toads into Florida because they'll kill insects.'"

The snout beetles have caused no problems for agriculture since being released over four years ago, said Pat Cockrell, director of agriculture policy for the Florida Farm Bureau Federation.

Before releasing the snout beetle, the USDA kept it for years in a quarantine lab in Gainesville, Florida, to prove it wouldn't devour other plants, even if no other food were available. The psyllid is still in the Gainesville lab, where federal researchers also had to assuage fears that the insects harbor plant diseases.

The USDA had hoped to begin releasing the psyllids in November, but bureaucratic delays could push that back to January, Center said.

Other insects may be on their way. The agriculture department is also studying a fly that carries nematodes that cause tumor-like growths to form on melaleuca trees. But another insect, called a sawfly, is on hold because toxins from a similar fly have been blamed for livestock poisonings in Europe, Australia, and South America.

Copyright 2001 Cox News Service

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