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Feds Ready For Sterile Moth Release

Emily Charrier-botts - Sonoma Index-tribune


A pilot program to test whether the so-called "sterile insect technique" could eradicate the light brown apple moth has been delayed, but is still scheduled to take place on three acres of private vineyard land in Carneros, perhaps as early as next week.

A pilot program to test whether the so-called "sterile insect technique" could eradicate the light brown apple moth has been delayed, but is still scheduled to take place on three acres of private vineyard land in Carneros, perhaps as early as next week.

The program, which is being overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture, involves releasing 1,400 sterilized moths per acre of land every week. The idea of sterile insect technique is that the sterilized moths will still be capable of mating with the wild moths, but unable to procreate. The USDA has said the technique has been used to successfully eradicate a wide variety of invasive pests all over the world. Critics of the plan, including James Carey, an entomology professor at UC Davis, have said it is impossible to eradicate the moth and that, over the course of all its applications, the sterile insect technique has only successfully eradicated one species - the screw-worm fly in the 1960s.

"They see any decrease in population and call it a success," Carey said in a prior interview with the Index-Tribune. The USDA is using the pilot program to determine if the technique could be used successfully over widespread areas of California to combat the apple moth, which USDA spokesman Larry Hawkins claims has already caused more than a $1 million in damage to caneberry and blackberry crops in the state and is capable of significantly more damage. Hawkins added the pilot program would allow USDA scientists to monitor the moth's behavior and mating patterns, giving a better understanding of this pest that has never been studied in the United States.

Hawkins had said the pilot program was scheduled to launch in October, but was delayed as the USDA waited for the necessary state permits. Hawkins said the permits have now been secured and, "We're just working out logistics right now," adding that the USDA hopes to begin releasing moths next week.

The moths have been reared at a specially built facility on the coast at Moss Landing, (Monterey County) where they will be subjected to a dose of radiation large enough to sterilize the pests while leaving their genitalia intact. The moths are not radioactive and, according to a USDA environmental assessment, will have no significant impact on native species. Hawkins said the program would be repeated several times in coming weeks to provide a data set showing the effectiveness of the program before deciding whether it would be feasible to implement it on a larger scale statewide.


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