Gypsy moth infestation in Mira Monte, Meiners Oaks brings state’s sole quarantine
By Daryl Kelley
Discovery of a “breeding population” of tree-killing gypsy moths has prompted a quarantine of most of Mira Monte and Meiners Oaks and a western slice of Ojai, the only restriction of its kind in California.
Two clusters of up to 100 orange-colored moth eggs were found recently in Mira Monte, following discovery last summer of seven adults moths in traps nearby, officials said.
Gypsy moths were discovered in the same area last year and two were eradicated without harm in Meiners Oaks in 2000.
Gypsy moths, which can devastate oaks and other hardwood trees, are rarely found West of the Mississippi River. But some apparently hitchhiked on recreational vehicles from the Midwest or northeastern United States, where the pests have severely damaged forests, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture.
The new Ojai Valley quarantine requires 35 businesses and thousands of residents to get a government inspection of anything stored outdoors during last summer before they can move the property elsewhere.
That means that owners of boats, RVs, trailers, patio furniture, firewood or other wood products within the five-square-mile quarantine area would need a county permit before the property could be sold or moved.
The quarantine area is bounded generally by Baldwin and Villanova roads on the south, state Highway 33 on the east, Fairview and Meyer roads on the north, and a sparsely populated area near the Ventura River on the west.
“The quarantine is necessary because we found egg masses in a couple of locations in Ojai (area),” said Steve Lyle, spokesman for the state Department of Food and Agriculture. “That tells us there is a breeding population there.”
The quarantine could last for two years, he said. It could affect, for example, a boat owner wanting to take the craft to Lake Casitas for the day or a recreational vehicle owner who wants to take a fall trip out of the area.
It is “intended to stop the spread of objects contaminated with gypsy moth eggs,” he said. “People are being asked not to move outdoor objects without prior inspection.”
Although the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, which will do the inspections, is requesting voluntary cooperation, a violation of the quarantine would be a misdemeanor crime and subject to a fine under the state Food and Agricultural Code, officials said. But inspectors won’t be writing tickets right away.
“Our first priority is to achieve compliance,” Lyle said. “Experience tells us that people want to cooperate and do what they can to reduce the risk of spreading invasive species.”
Notification letters to residents were scheduled to be hand-delivered Thursday after a quarantine declaration was issued in Sacramento.
Most affected businesses — a plant nursery, a landscaping company, a green-waste facility, a lumber yard, storage facilities and mobile home parks, for example — had already been contacted by midweek, said county Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Alan Laird, who is overseeing the program.
While retail complexes such as the Vons shopping center at Ojai’s “Y” intersection are within the eastern edge of the quarantine area, businesses there don’t have outdoor storage, so they won’t be affected by the restrictions, Laird said.
“This only affects anything stored outdoors,”he said.
He said two county inspectors, and more state officers, will be working the quarantine area, and that residents should expect a response within 45 minutes if they decide they want to move a boat or an RV that’s been in outdoor storage.
“We’ll be there in a very timely fashion,” he said.
As for businesses, as soon as they are inspected, they’ll be cleared to carry on business as usual, Laird said. For example, a plant nursery in the quarantine zone will be inspected for infestation, receive a certificate showing no problem was found, and then be free to sell plants.
Officials said the moth’s egg-laying season is ending, so any problem should be evident to inspectors now.
The quarantine was triggered after state inspectors, following up the discovery of seven gypsy moths in state traps in June and July, found two masses of eggs.
“They found two properties (in the Mira Monte) area infested with eggs masses,” Laird said. Each of those was within a quarter-mile of the other, he said. So the problem may be focused.
But the summer catch was serious enough to prompt this fall’s survey to find if gypsy moths are laying eggs locally, then to kill them before the resulting baby caterpillars eat many times their weight in leaves.
Since the summer discoveries, the number of traps in a four-square-mile survey area around the catches had been increased from 14 to 144, Lyle said. The state usually maintains two traps per square mile in the Ojai Valley, he said.
In addition, there were 10 state inspectors assigned to the survey, he said.
A single gypsy moth caterpillar can eat 1 square foot of leaves every day, experts say. And they have wrought devastation on vast swaths of woodland of the northeastern United States and the Great Lakes regions since migrating from Europe in the 1800s.
Once a tree is repeatedly defoliated, it is susceptible to disease, and often dies.
“It is important to detect and eradicate gypsy moth infestations while the population is still small,” says a Food and Agriculture flier that announced the survey.
“If a larger infestation were to develop in Ojai,” the flier said, “the gypsy moth caterpillars would threaten oaks in this region as well as other hardwoods, evergreens, manzanita, cottonwood, willow and others. It is also a threat to forests and agricultural crops such as fruit trees.”
Generally, however, gypsy moths are not a big problem for farmers in California, said Susan Johnson, Ventura County’s chief deputy agricultural commission. So far, every outbreak of gypsy moth infestation in this state has been eradicated, state officials said.
“It’s not an agricultural pest, it’s a pest of open spaces and viewsheds,” Johnson said. “It infests oaks and hardwood trees.”
Masses of eggs, appearing as buff-colored felt, are found on trees and on transportable items such as RVs, outdoor play equipment, barbecues and campers, according to state officials.
New infestations are primarily caused when these items are moved from infested areas such as the eastern United States, where millions of gypsy moths strip broad stands of trees and bushes each year.
The moth threat has prompted concern among local landowners, such as the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, which oversees more than 1,930 acres of open space, much of it within the quarantine area.
The eggs are laid in masses that are light yellow-orange in color, often on the bark of trees. Any sighting should be reported to a state pest hot line at (800) 491-1899, officials said.
If a population of moths is found, it can be attacked with an organic insecticide, the standard practice after such a discovery.
Also, a quarantine could include inspection of motor homes at the California border if they are arriving from infected areas. And local inspectors would follow up in Ventura County to make sure none of the pests remain on the vehicles or equipment that were in infected regions. Those stretch from Maine to Wisconsin to Virginia.