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Legal Learning: Gyspy moths and the law

From James H. Manahan, J.D.

Since July 1, residents of Lake and Cook counties have been subject to a new law. We have to check for gypsy moths, plus their caterpillars, eggs and pupae.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has given us a checklist of items we have to examine before we move them to another county or state. There are 88 items on the list, including camping equipment, boats, RVs, firewood, trash cans, flagpoles, lawnmowers, bikes, sleds and cars. You can read the whole list (with pictures of moth egg masses) at

And it’s not only residents — visitors to our two counties are required to do the same thing before leaving. Also, loggers have to check their trucks and loads to make sure they aren’t transporting moth eggs out of Lake and Cook counties.

What happens if you fail to check? You are subject to a fine of up to $7,500 and/or 90 days in jail. The Duluth News Tribune reported (July 1), however, that a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture said, “We are not going to have inspectors standing along Highway 61 to enforce this for everyone who drives by in a camper.” So compliance, for the time being anyway, will apparently be voluntary and on the honor system.

What gives the Minnesota Department of Agriculture the right to impose these requirements on us? It turns out there is a Minnesota statute, Section 18G.06, that gives the commissioner of agriculture the power to impose quarantines. The law says, “The commissioner may impose a quarantine restricting or regulating the production, movement or existence of plants, plant products, agricultural commodities, crop seed, farm products or other articles or materials in order that the introduction or spread of a plant pest may be prevented or limited or an existing plant pest may be controlled or eradicated.” The phrase “other articles or materials” apparently means the 88 items on the list. This is the first time the commissioner has imposed a quarantine of gypsy moths; he believes the threat gives him no other choice.

Gypsy moths eat leaves, especially aspen, birch, willow, poplar and oak. They can defoliate vast areas quickly, causing already stressed trees to die. Last summer, the state trapped more than 71,000 gypsy moths along and near the North Shore — a record. According to the News Tribune, pest experts have sprayed “just about every inch of Lake and Cook counties from 2006-2011” in an effort to slow the advancement of the moth. But that effort has now ended, moving west into St. Louis and Carlton counties. Officials expect the first major forest defoliation in Lake and Cook counties within three to five years.

The first gypsy moth quarantines were enacted in 1912 in New England. Minnesota is the 22nd state to be completely or partially quarantined for this invasive species. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has now issued an interstate commerce quarantine that parallels the Minnesota quarantine.

Here is what the USDA says you have to do before taking any of the 88 items out of Lake and Cook counties: “Carefully inspect all surfaces and crevices of your outdoor household articles for gypsy moth egg masses. Remove and destroy any egg masses you find. Scrape them off with a putty knife, stiff brush or similar hand tool. Dispose of egg masses and other life stages in a container of hot, soapy water or place them in a plastic bag, seal it and set it in the sun.”

So any of us who want to help stop the spread of gypsy moths should follow the new rules if we take the listed items out of Lake and Cook counties. In fact, we might be stopped at the border if we take these items into Canada. Even without the threat of a fine or jail, it seems like a good idea to do what we can to save our trees and forests.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s top 10 attorneys. He now handles family law, wills and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and are not to be attributed to his employer.