Two more days, that’s all. Two more days and Bob Crowley could have stopped all this browntail moth madness in its tracks.

“I could have done it myself,” Crowley said, sitting in his Durham kitchen surrounded by a century of reports, advisories, letters and other archival data about Maine’s most obnoxious insect. “If I had known that they were going to shut the program down … I could have done it in one day.”

Most of Maine knows him as “Survivor Bob,” the former Gorham High School physics teacher who won the TV series “Survivor Gabon” back in 2008. But long before he wowed America with his ingenuity on an island off the west coast of Africa, Crowley was a man on a much different mission.

Bob Crowley

For five years starting in the late 1970s, Crowley worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Hs job: walk every foot of the Maine coast from Old Orchard Beach to Bath and down to Reid State Park in Georgetown, as well as the islands of Casco Bay, searching for and destroying every browntail moth nest he could find. It almost worked. Crowley and his co-workers managed to reduce the offshore infestation from 16 islands to 12 to 10 and eventually to just two ­– House Island and Vail Island. As for the mainland, he only found one nest in the entire five years – on Flying Point in Freeport.

Why should we care? Because browntail moths, currently sweeping into Maine in historic numbers, don’t just defoliate entire neighborhoods in a single munch. The tiny, poisonous hairs they shed as they pupate from caterpillars to moths also can cause severe skin rash, respiratory difficulties, even anaphylactic shock in some people.

What’s worse, according to University of Maine entomology professor Eleanor Groden, the browntail population is exploding. An aerial survey last year revealed 126,000 infested acres – mostly in the Bath-Brunswick-Topsham area but rapidly expanding elsewhere. Compared with two years earlier, the affected area had more than doubled.

So … we should be concerned?

“I’m very concerned,” Groden replied in an interview Friday. “I live in Bowdoinham. I’m very concerned. And I am scrambling to look at a variety of different options that might come into play.”

Back to Survivor Bob, who almost nipped all of this in the bud.

It was, for Crowley, the perfect job. Armed with his forestry degree from the University of Maine, he simply had to walk the islands and coast, in daily increments of four miles, cutting down, logging and eventually burning each and every nest he found.

The browntail moth first arrived in Maine around 1897, surged dramatically from 1913-16 and then collapsed – no one’s sure why – in the 1920s. But they were a big problem; a 1907 newspaper photo in Crowley’s thick binder shows a pile of 120,000 nests piled high in York, where each fetched a one-dollar bounty.

By the 1970s, the browntails were back. And Crowley believed deeply in what he was doing, which in his mind was saving people not just from painful skin irritation, but also more serious health risks that, in rare cases, could actually lead to death.

“I really thought some little kid was going to die,” he said. “I was trying to save this kid I didn’t know.”

Then came 1984. The federal government cut the program (summarily ignoring Crowley’s impassioned letter to then-President Ronald Reagan) and left the state to carry on as it saw fit. Which, alas, it didn’t.

One day in the late 1980s, Crowley was boating down Cacso Bay when he saw browntail nests pockmarking the vegetation atop Fort Gorges. He sounded the alarm, but no one much cared.

So, he did what he could, starting with Stave Island, where he’d built a cottage made out of timbers from the old Army base at Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth. It’s one of only three dwellings on the 121-acre island, not counting all the browntail moth nests.

Some of the nests appear near the ground and are easily cut away. But others sit higher up in the oak trees, well out of reach even for Survivor Bob.

For years, he’d tried to get his male friends to come down for a day and help out. His rationale: “You come here and eat my lobster in the summer and hunt my deer in the fall. How about helping me get rid of some nests in the spring?”

“Oh, I’d love to, Bob, but my wife wants me to clean the garage,” one would respond.

“Wife wants me to paint the bathroom. Sorry, Bob,” another might say.

Finally one day, inspiration struck. After successfully neutralizing a lofty nest with his shotgun, Crowley bought four bricks of birdshot shells, called his buddies and said, “Hey, want to come down and help me shoot the nests out of the trees?”

“All of them showed up,” Crowley said with a broad smile. “And they’ve been coming ever since.”

Crowley structures his annual moth shoot on the principle that “men will make a game out of anything.” The more nests you take down with a single shot, the more your point total rises.

But as effective browntail moth control goes, at least beyond a single season on a single island, it’s far from a long-term solution.

Groden, the UMaine entomologist, notes that site-specific strategies such as nest removal and even targeted spraying with insecticide do little more than buy temporary relief until the moths lay next year’s crop of eggs and the cycle starts all over again.

“It helps for the homeowners if they have some trees right over the kids’ playground. That makes a real difference in their exposure,” Groden said. “But it doesn’t impact the (overall moth) population.”

Groden is working with the Maine Forest Service and colleagues at UMaine to try to find a weak link in the browntail moth’s formidable defense system – starting with those hardy webs that get them through the winter with a silk that repels water, provides antibiotic protection and even contains a dash of anti-freeze.

But because there’s no hard research on past infestations, she said, it’s hard to know how to combat the moths on such a large scale. Only rainy weather and the fungi that come with it seem  to cause a population collapse during the critical months of May and June – and that’s solely up to Mother Nature.

Groden also cautions against the notion that, save House and Vail islands, the moths were gone from Maine back when Crowley waged his five-year war three-plus decades ago. While they were indeed undetectable elsewhere, she said, that doesn’t mean they were nonexistent.

Try telling that to Crowley, who’s convinced that the only option now is comprehensive aerial spraying – not just of this neighborhood or that conservation district, but wherever the moths have spread. Now the owner of Maine Forest Yurts adjacent to his home, he worries about the potential fallout for the state’s tourism industry if the browntail tide keeps rolling inland.

If only he’d gone out in his boat, on his own time, and finished the job himself. If only …

“One day on House and one day on Vail and they would have been gone.” Crowley said.

Just two more days. It’s like an itch he can’t scratch.

 

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