It's wartime again in Maryland's ongoing battle against the leaf-eating gypsy moth caterpillar. But most of the battle lines this year have moved beyond Baltimore.
Area residents are no longer finding the hoards of caterpillars that plagued them between 1988 and 1990, damaging or killing trees and showering droppings on cars and lawn furniture. The hairy little creatures, recognizable by their blue and red spots, have been decimated locally by disease, predators, parasites and, to a lesser degree, insecticides.
Rear-guard actions continue to be fought near Randallstown, Catonsville, Middle River and White Marsh, where aerial spraying has been carried out this month. Several tracts in the Severn and Magothy areas of Anne Arundel County and in southern Harford County also were sprayed.
But the main front in the gypsy moths' slow march across the state is now further south, said Robert H. Tichenor Jr., forest pest management chief for the state Agriculture Department. The heaviest infestations this year are in Charles and southern Prince George's counties in the south, Talbot and Dorchester counties on the Eastern Shore, and Allegany County in the west.
State-sponsored aerial spraying, which targets stands of trees, began May 4. The spray planes and helicopters are likely to remain in the air next week in Western Maryland, winding down by June 1 in Garrett County, where spring has come late this year, Mr. Tichenor said.
NTC Statewide, about 83,000 acres of state and private land are being sprayed, down from 153,000 acres last year, and a high of 187,000 acres in 1990.
The recession has forced sharp cuts in state and local allocations for aerial spraying. By happy coincidence, officials said, falling numbers of gypsy moths in densely populated counties near Washington and Baltimore has also eased residents' demand for the spraying.
"There is a continuation of very low levels of gypsy moths in . . . Baltimore County, Carroll, Howard, Frederick, and not a lot in Montgomery County," Mr. Tichenor said. "In some places in Carroll and Frederick [counties], you can't even find egg masses. It's the lowest it's been in 10 years easily."
The scarcity of gypsy moths in some areas is "part of a natural cycling," he said. Unfavorable weather, fatal viruses, fungi, predators like the white-footed deer mouse and parasitic wasps are among the factors thought to contribute to "crashes" in gypsy moth populations after heavy infestations.
The worst damage in Maryland came in 1990, when 133,000 acres were defoliated. Last year, the damage fell to just 75,000 acres, and the number may drop farther this year, Mr. Tichenor said.
The lack of state money for spraying this year "reduced the program by 25 to 30 percent anyway," Mr. Tichenor said.
"What we've got to spend is a little less than $1 million of state funds," he said. "Had this been a normal year, where we had full budgeting, we would have been close to $1.3 million."
Further cutbacks came after several counties, including Howard, Carroll, Garrett and Queen Anne's, dropped out of the state's spray program due to a lack of local matching funds. Only state-owned land in those counties was targeted for spraying.
Other counties, including Caroline, Talbot, Dorchester and Prince George's, passed the hat among affected property owners, asking them to come up with the county's share of the costs in order to get the job done. In most cases, the direct appeals were successful, he said.
In all, this year's spending on gypsy moth controls in Maryland will total about $2.4 million in federal, state and local expenditures, down from $3.4 million last year.
But the gypsy moths are here to stay, and they will be back periodically in big numbers.
"Experience shows that as long as there are oak trees, there will be gypsy moths from time to time," Mr. Tichenor said.