Federal agriculture officials are spending nearly $60 million this year to help combat the beetles, bollworms and other bugs that have the potential to wreak havoc on American crops, with California and Florida taking the biggest share.
The money, which comes from the 2014 farm bill, will go toward more than 400 projects intended to assess current conditions and prevent further damage that can happen when species that aren’t native to an area are introduced and begin to eat their way through crops not intended for them.
The top states are California, which was awarded about $13 million for pest and plant programs, and Florida, with more than $7 million. The spending plan was announced last week.
Of Florida’s money, the biggest chunk is going to attacking the giant African land snail, a slow-moving threat that quickly caused concern among state agriculture officials about four years ago.
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The snails, originally from East Africa, can grow to 8 inches and live as long as nine years.
According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which plays a major role in attacking the snails, the creatures were spotted in Miami-Dade County in 2011, the first evidence of this current infestation. Since then, Florida officials have worked to capture and contain them, keeping a tally of kills.
As of Friday, 156,253 snails had been killed, captured or found dead, a department official said. The department said 27 neighborhoods in Miami-Dade and one in next-door Broward County were being treated following snail detections.
So far, state officials said, they’re making progress in defeating the snails, which are known to consume at least 500 types of plants. They’re illegal to import into the United States without a permit, and state officials are unsure how the outbreak in 2011 began. Their damage extends beyond plants: They can cause structural damage to buildings, by consuming plaster and stucco to acquire the calcium needed to grow their large shells.
“We find them more dead than alive now,” said Mark Fagan, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “We feel we are absolutely going to achieve eradication.”
The snails are getting close to agricultural areas but haven’t yet damaged crops, Fagan said.
“We have been able to stop it in its tracks before it crosses over,” he said. “Without the possible movement by man, these snails are not going to get across U.S. 1.”
Among the strategies Florida officials are using, aided by federal dollars: “detector dog teams.” The specialized dogs are trained to find giant African land snails; they know to bypass snails native to Florida that don’t pose the same problems. Florida’s detector dogs are Labrador retrievers named Sierra and Bear.
While the number of snails caught each week is tiny now compared with what it once was, the state can’t declare eradication until two years after the last snail is collected.
Osama El-Lissy, deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture program that oversees the invasive species programs, said funding was up substantially in recent years and was projected to increase again in fiscal 2018.
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Among other major projects
– In California, $4 million has been dedicated for an exotic fruit fly survey, as well as more than $3 million for “detector dog” teams.
– In Hawaii, $2.2 million has been dedicated to responding to detection of the coconut rhinoceros beetle.
– In Pennsylvania, $1.5 million will go to eradicating the spotted lantern fly.