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Among America's 'most wanted': hungry beetle

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Based in McCall, Idaho, Christy Behm has parachuted from airplanes and rappelled out of helicopters to fight forest fires in the western United States. But her toughest foe may lie here, 30 feet above New York's Central Park.

Straddling a slender tree branch, she pauses for a safety tug on her climbing harness and backup rope. Then she swings upside down, clinging like a possum to the underside of the modest limb while city traffic whizzes by below. Her quarry: a biological terrorist that's so rarely seen, its pursuers have to scrutinize each square foot of bark for telltale holes and faint spots where eggs the size of a rice grain may have been deposited. The threat: the potential loss of every maple plus nine other tree species across the United States.

When the Asian longhorned beetle - or ALB, for short - was first detected in the US nine years ago, it quickly moved onto the nation's list of most wanted bugs. But spotting the roughly 1-inch-long beetles with their gaudy black-and-white striped antennae is so difficult that normal means of detection and eradication don't work. So the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has employed nearly 200 people in an intensive "bug hunt."

But even that hasn't been enough. So the USDA has called for backup from the equivalent of an insect SWAT team, whose members last month detected the beetle in Central Park on two American elms - the second such sighting in the park.

That's where Ms. Behm and her seven burly tree-climbing experts - smoke jumpers from the western US - come in. Usually these self-professed "thrill seekers" parachute into forest fires in parched western forests. But since 1999, some smoke-jumper volunteers have been enlisting in their off season to battle the ALB interloper.

"They've been a critical factor in turning the tide in our favor," says Joseph Gittleman, the USDA's top general in the New York area for the Asian Longhorned Beetle Cooperative Eradication Program.

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