A tiny bug sucks the life out of parts of a Louisiana delta

Tiny bug eating away at coast

(WVUE) - Near the mouth of the Mississippi River, the marsh is under attack.

Scales, small insects that attach themselves to plants and use straw-like mouths to feed on their hosts, have infested the delta near the mouth of the river.

"I don't think these roseau got a whole lotta chance if the new growth is coming up and the bugs are eating it," said Earl Armstrong, a Plaquemines Parish cattle rancher who first saw the scales last fall.

Todd Baker, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said the scales have infested an area from the mouth of the river extending north about 25 or 30 miles on both banks.

No one knows exactly how much has been infested, or exactly what causes the unprecedented outbreak, but Baker said it is widespread.

Roseau cane, a tall grass native to Louisiana, is a key component of large parts of the coastal Louisiana, including the bird's foot delta that forms the state's southernmost land.

On small islands and in marshy areas barely above sea level, the plants play a critical role in holding land in place.

"If we lose the roseau cane, erosion will take over on us," Armstrong said.

To a laymen looking at a marshy area of West Bay on the Plaquemines Parish west bank, it might not appear as though anything is amiss.

However, Armstrong points to brown patches in the cane and areas of relatively wide open space where the cane should grow like a wall of grass.

The potential solutions all have drawbacks, according to Baker.

State biologists have considered using fire to kill the insects, but concede the roseau does not easily burn.

Insecticides can be more effective, but can also harm other species, Baker said.

Officials are even in the dark about the specific enemy they are fighting. LSU biologists are trying to identify the specific species of scale in order to mount a strategy for fighting the pests.

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