Many hunters remember the devastating gypsy moth infestation of the 1980s. Enormous forested areas in the east were denuded of leaves, resulting in the death of hardwoods across millions of acres. The timber industry hurried to cut dead trees in order to prevent valuable oak logs from decaying on the stump.
Gypsy moths, a destructive invasive species, prefer oak leaves and will feed on other species as well. Their advance changed the habitat dramatically. Where the leaf canopy disappeared, sunlight reached the forest floor and stimulated rapid regeneration of dense underbrush which became a haven for deer but a heartache for deer hunters. Deer had on plenty of browse to feed on and hide in more easily.
Even though the caterpillars have about 20 legs, they move slowly on foot. Instead they travel long distances when the winds blow them from one area to another shortly after they hatch and climb into the treetops to feed on brand new leaves. Heavy rains mitigate these pests somewhat by washing them out of the trees, but most just climb again and resume feeding. When the caterpillars turn into moths, they fly to their next forested feast. This ability to travel great distances earns them the name “gypsy” moth.
The gypsy moth population diminished since the ’80s. Today they’re back, especially at elevations above 1500 feet. That’s where the defoliation begins and is most severe. Steve Sherk Jr., owner of Sherk’s Guide Service in Bradford, PA, says “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen. I’m not expecting much for acorns this year.”
Sherk’s world is Cattaraugus County, New York and the Allegheny National Forest east of the Allegheny Reservoir. I’ve seen the devastation for myself on the western side of the lake. I took a drive with a buddy, Randy Ent, and saw giant oak trees with almost every leaf shredded by the worms. Even on a clear, sunny day, you might think you hear a gentle rain falling. Leaf cuttings, droppings from the caterpillars, and the worms themselves make a pitter-patter sound as they land on the forest floor.
Trees are resilient. They can tolerate some gypsy moths, but when egg masses (found mostly on tree trunks) exceed 250 per acre, foresters become concerned. Densities ranged from 280 to 2,840 egg masses per acre in northern parts of the Allegheny National Forest last fall, so today’s infestation was expected. Plans were made to spray for the moths in May, apparently to little effect. Perhaps heavy rains washed the spray off the leaves or the spraying was too limited.
Antler growth won’t be affected this year because deer are feeding now on lush greens, and last year’s nutrition plays a big role in this year’s antler growth. The worry this year is that a scarcity of acorns will be a challenge for hunters and a problem for deer if the winter of 2021-22 turns out to be severe or the deer begin winter in poor health.
Where you find the food you’ll find the deer. Or the turkeys. Or the bears. That’s always true. This year, thanks to gypsy moths, it might be tough for you or the wildlife to find many acorns at high elevations, but where you find pockets of acorns, the hunting should be good.
When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He writes for top outdoor magazines, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.