While city health officials grapple with the mosquito-born West Nile virus, another winged pest on the horizon is threatening an epidemic of a different kind. This one's in the canopy of hardwoods greening our city.The Emerald Ash Borer, a wood-boring beetle originally from Asia and previously unknown in North America, has already made its way to Windsor from Michigan, where it was first discovered in six southeast counties last summer.
There, the highly invasive metallic-green beetle has already killed or damaged millions of ash trees. It attacks white, black and green ash, but not the mountain variety. Experts say other hardwoods may also be susceptible. The beetle has no known predator.
City of Toronto officials are so concerned about the beetle's spread here that they sent two foresters to Windsor last month to investigate.
"It's really sad," says city forest health care inspector Jozef Ric of the potential devastation. "No ash will be alive. It's just a matter of time."
The infestation has prompted Windsor-Essex county officials to place a quarantine on all ash trees and ash wood products that makes it illegal to move ash trees, branches, lumber, firewood and wood chips larger than 1 inch in diameter. It's hoped the move will control the pest's spread.
Critics, however, say federal officials have been slower to take action even though the bug has already laid waste to up to 8,000 ash trees in the Windsor area, leaving $5 million in cleanup costs. It looks to be bound for Toronto, where there are 27,000 ash trees, not counting those in city ravines, parks and woodlots.
The government's response has been slow partly because there's no funding.
Robert Holland of the Ash Rescue Coalition has been lobbying the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the federal body responsible for the problem, to take action for months. ARC is asking for the creation of a "firebreak" along the Essex and Kent county borders to keep the bug from destroying southern Ontario's 1 billion ash trees.
Instead, Holland says, the CFIA has wasted time researching the pest. It's only now learning how to detect it.
"This is nonsense, to play this kind of gambling game," Holland says. "The (Canadian government's) strategy for the area seems to be to do nothing and hope the U.S. handles it" before it gets out of control here.
CFIA spokesperson Ken Marchant agrees the pests are a matter of some urgency.
"The earlier you jump on them, the easier they are to control."
But he adds that right now it's believed the invasion hasn't gone too far and there's hope it can be stopped. He suggests the feds have until next spring to find a solution. "It's in its earliest development."
City council isn't so sure. It passed a resolution last month urging the feds to put in place "a preventive and responsive action program" and put the government on notice that the city will sue for damages should the beetle invade. It will cost an estimated $16 million to clear and replace T.O.'s street trees should they become infested.
City councillor David Soknacki says he's worried about whether anything will be done before mid-May, when the adult beetles begin to fly again.
"Toronto cherishes its green cover," he says.