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Oregon travelers advised: Don't pick up invasive hitchhikers

They can cause big threat to agriculture

SALEM, Ore. - Invasive species are unwelcome hitchhikers. The message from agricultural officials to international travelers is simple– be aware of where you are traveling and what you might be bringing back to Oregon. Pests and diseases from other parts of the globe can threaten the state’s agriculture and natural resources.

“Enjoy your experience overseas, but leave it all there,” says Helmuth Rogg, Director of Plan Protection and Conservation with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “Take pictures, but don’t bring back live plants and animal products to Oregon. There’s always a risk associated with travel in that you can bring hitchhikers that can establish in Oregon and the US.”

The world has gotten smaller. Travelers can be halfway around the globe in a day. It’s no problem for spores, seeds, insects, and pathogens to survive the return trip.

“You can easily transport pests that we don’t have and don’t want in Oregon,” says Rogg.

There are several examples of people bringing back an invasive species or a disease to the US that has resulted in millions of dollars in crop losses or other environmental damage.

Oregon averted a potential disaster three years ago when US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspectors at Portland International Airport contacted Rogg at a time when parts of Russia and Japan experienced a large Asian gypsy moth infestation.

An alert passenger traveling from Tokyo noticed something strange on his checked-in luggage upon arrival. He alerted CBP inspectors who then closely examined the suitcase and found an Asian gypsy moth egg mass.

Apparently the luggage was on the ground in Japan and in the open long enough while being loaded into the cargo hold of the plane for a female Asian gypsy moth to quickly lay eggs. If it had gone unnoticed, those eggs might have hatched, finding a new home in Oregon.

“You always wonder how many other pieces of luggage arrive unnoticed,” says Rogg.

Essentially deputizing travelers to inspect on their own is one solution. Cautioning them to avoid picking up something invasive to begin with is a good first step. Messages and campaigns have been created to make travelers aware of the role they play in protecting Oregon from pests and diseases.

“When you travel, especially to tropical countries, there are a lot of bugs flying around,” says Rogg. “If your suitcase is left open, ants, spiders, and cockroaches can crawl in. This can happen even in the finest hotels and resorts. Walking outdoors, you can pick up weed seeds onto your shoes and socks. You might unknowingly bring back a new infestation. Before you come back to Oregon, clean your shoes and socks, clean out your suitcase, and make sure there is nothing in there that might be a surprise for you when you come back home.”

Foreign animal diseases hitching a ride back to Oregon is the concern of State Veterinarian Dr. Brad Leamaster. USDA and state animal officials keep an eye on the activity status of critical diseases.

“If an economically important disease has been detected in a foreign country that we commonly do business with, then we will want to be extra diligent in following procedures that will prevent the disease from making its way to the US,” says LeaMaster. “Right now, China is reporting foot and mouth disease (FMD) present in cattle and sheep in the north central part of their country. China is one of our largest trading partners. There is a huge amount of goods and people moving between our two countries. We are also seeing elevated detections of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) and African Swine Fever in areas in Europe and we are keeping close watch on those disease threats.”

FMD, in particular, grabs the attention of the livestock industry. The disease is very contagious and can survive for a long time under the right conditions. Contaminated shoes or clothing of a traveler from an affected farm could lead to the virus hitching a ride to the US where it could end up being economically devastating.

“Indeed, the world has gotten smaller,” says LeaMaster. “The increased amount of jet airline travelers these days increases the risk of bringing an unwanted disease or pest back to the US. My advice to travelers is to be diligent and aware of possible exposure to animal disease risks, especially when traveling in rural areas. Do not bring prohibited materials or goods home. Most importantly, do not bypass or ignore agriculture inspection procedures at border entry stations. Pay attention, be aware, and be responsible.”

ODA, the Oregon Invasive Species Council, and Oregon State University’s Sea Grant Program have collaborated on an outreach effort modified from USDA’s “Don’t Pack a Pest” campaign. Now in its second year, the Oregon campaign focuses on a smaller group of world travelers– international students at the major state universities. Brochures, videos, and a social media presence have combined to make these students aware that when they go home and come back, it’s best not to return with certain items from their native country.

“Our state universities have a fairly large population of international students,” says Rogg. “They travel back and forth from Oregon and sometimes return with food or a plant from their native country. Many students are not aware you aren’t allowed to bring back live plants, animals, or specific food items that are risky.”

Other states are interesting in implementing a similar campaign to their international students.

In addition to potentially causing harm to agriculture and the environment, bringing back certain items and products is against the law. A long list of prohibited and restricted items is maintained by CBP and includes fruits and vegetables, plants and seeds, and soil. Travelers can apply to USDA for a permit to import certain regulated plants and plant products for consumption or propagation. But absent of getting the permit, the best advice is to just say no to the idea of bringing back something that could cause a great deal of harm.

Whether the concern is an animal disease or one affecting plants, the message is the same to travelers– play it safe and be smart upon return.


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