BANGOR DAILY NEWS — In an unusual chain of events this spring, during which multiple failsafes were missed, ash trees potentially infested with emerald ash borers made their way from Maryland to Maine. They were sold at Lowe’s stores throughout the state. Now the state and the company are working to track those trees down.

Eighty trees were shipped to eight Lowe’s stores in Maine — all the chain’s stores in the state except the Presque Isle location — from a nursery in Connecticut. The Connecticut nursery had obtained the trees from a nursery in Maryland. Under federal and state quarantine invasive insect regulations, those trees never should have left Maryland or Connecticut, according to Maine agricultural officials.

The emerald ash borer beetle is considered one of the most serious invasive species in Maine, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. It is a serious threat to all three species of native ash trees in the state — green, white and brown.

The emerald ash borer was confirmed in ash trees in Maryland in 2003 and in Connecticut in 2012. At this point, no one knows if the trees shipped to Lowe’s in Maine were actually infested with the beetle, according to Gary Fish, state horticulturist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Emerald ash borer was confirmed in pockets of southern and northern Maine in 2018 and 2019. Officials worry those areas of infestation in the state could expand if the bugs hitched a ride on the Lowe’s trees from infected areas.

That the trees — and any emerald ash borers they may contain — then ended up in Maine is a problem, according to state agricultural officials.

“There is reason for concern in this case because emerald ash borer is such a destructive species,” said Allison Kanoti, state entomologist with the Maine Forest Service’s forest health and monitoring program. “They are a significant threat to our ash trees in the state.”

The adult emerald ash borer female lays her eggs in the cracks of the ash tree bark in the spring. The eggs hatch in mid-summer and the tiny larvae burrow into the tree where they will stay until the following spring feeding on the tree. The larvae move around within the wood by creating tunnels which block the flow of water and other nutrients the tree needs to survive. An infestation can kill a healthy ash tree or entire stand in as little as five years. Nationwide the pest is responsible for the death of millions of ash trees.

To control the spread of emerald ash borers, the United States Department of Agriculture has quarantined any region or state in which the beetles are found. Any ash nursery stock, green lumber, logs, stumps, roots or branches must not leave a quarantine area. They can, however, be sold and transported within a quarantine area.

Portions of Maine where the emerald ash borer has been confirmed are under state quarantine regulations.

Quarantines for ash trees are in place in all of Connecticut and Maryland. According to the Maine agriculture officials, the trees that made it to Maine slipped through the quarantine.

The presence of the suspect ash trees in the Maine Lowe’s stores was confirmed in early August. That came after an agricultural inspector in New Hampshire found green ash trees being sold at a local Lowe’s store in that state and alerted Maine authorities.

“Fortunately our network with our neighboring state allowed us to find out the trees were in Maine,” Fish said.

Inspectors with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service — or APHIS — in August found one of the suspect trees at the Bangor Lowe’s location. No evidence of emerald ash borer activity was detected on that tree, but it was destroyed out of an abundance of caution, Fish said.

Fish said he then immediately contacted Lowe’s corporate headquarters and the Connecticut nursery that had shipped the trees that spring, asking for their assistance in finding the remaining 79 trees. After checking their records, Lowe’s was able to confirm that all of the trees shipped to the Lowe’s Stores in Augusta, Auburn, Bangor, Brewer and Thomaston — all located outside of Maine’s emerald ash borer quarantine areas — had been sold.

Following more than two months of communications between Fish and Lowe’s corporate offices, this week the company informed him that on Monday the corporation had identified 11 of the individuals in Maine who had purchased the trees from Lowe’s. Company officials told him on Monday that letters went out to those 11 individuals asking them to contact DAFC. This week Lowe’s also hung emerald ash borer informational signs in their Maine stores hoping to reach any other customers who purchased the trees.

Fish said he was told by Lowe’s officials the time lag between informing them of the trees reaching Maine and the company contacting the individuals who purchased them was due to logistical and technical restraints faced by employees due largely to working remotely under Lowe’s COVID-19 protocols.

“Lowe’s works closely with vendors and local officials to ensure that products follow local, state and federal required inspections,” Lowe’s corporate headquarters said on Wednesday. “We are actively collaborating with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, and encourage customers who have purchased a green ash tree or trees from one of our retail locations to contact the department.”

The state is hopeful that the purchasers — and anyone else who may have one of the trees — will respond to the letters.

“We really want to inspect those trees and we recommend if anyone has one, destroy it and replace it with something else,” Fish said.

No punitive action is anticipated on the state or federal levels against either nursery in Connecticut or Maryland involved in the transport of the trees or against Lowe’s. Nor are the people who purchased the trees in any trouble. However, the Maryland nursery from which the trees originated did receive a letter of warning from the USDA, according to Fish.

Anyone who has not already been contacted by Lowe’s is encouraged to get in touch with Fish’s office either by emailing or calling him directly at 207-287-7545.

At that point, an official with the DAFC will request they be allowed to come and inspect the tree or trees.

“We honestly don’t really anticipate seeing anything this year but it’s worth an initial check,” Kanoti said. “With the life cycle of the emerald ash borer, it can be up to a couple of years before there are any exterior symptoms of an infestation.”

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