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'Gray Ghosts' Lurk in NC Forests

The fuzzy white specks on the needles are the larvae of woolly agelgid, which can kill mature hemlock trees. (Nicholas A. Tonelli/flickr)
The fuzzy white specks on the needles are the larvae of woolly agelgid, which can kill mature hemlock trees. (Nicholas A. Tonelli/flickr)
February 22, 2018

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The unseasonably warm weather seen in North Carolina this week has residents venturing out into the state's thousands of miles of hiking trails. In parts of the state, they're likely to notice grayed, tall relics of trees.

They are hemlocks, and thousands of them have been killed by the woolly adelgid, a non-native species guilty of killing thousands of mature hemlock trees. Forestry experts are in a race against time to preserve the plant species.

Josh Kelly, public lands biologist with Mountain True, said if you haven't heard of the problem, there is a dismal reason for that.

"I think the reason it's not in our radar anymore is because most of them have already died,” Kelly said. “Once it was in the Appalachian range where there are a lot of hemlocks, it spread really rapidly north and south and first arrived in our area in 2001 and was pretty much everywhere by 2007."

The invasive insect arrived to the U.S. from Japan in the 1950s, and once it reached the northern Appalachian Forest, spread rapidly to the Southeast. Hemlocks provide valuable ecosystem services in Appalachian forests, including cover for wildlife and cooling shade along waterways.

Kelly and others acknowledge it's an uphill battle to save the tree species, but property owners can help by inventorying their property to find any impacted hemlocks. Groups such as his can help point people in the right direction for help. And, he added, it's worth the investment.

"The hemlocks play a really unique role in our ecosystem. They are one of the longest lived and most shade-tolerant trees,” he said, “So they can grow in deep shade and they produce a very deep shade, and that shade they produce is great cover for a lot of wildlife."

Kelly said the origin of the deadly insect - a non-native bug - is a reminder of the importance for the public and private sector to exercise caution when importing plants and trees from other countries.

According to the Center for Invasive Species Protection, since European settlement began in North America, nearly 500 non-native tree-feeding insects and disease-causing pathogens have been introduced into the United States. About 80 of these have caused notable damage to trees.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - NC