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Snail hated by farmers turns up on West Side

TACOMA – A tiny snail loathed by Australian grain growers has invaded Tacoma’s Tideflats area.

Agriculture officials worry that some of the thousands of Mediterranean snails that have been found on a peninsula between the Hylebos and Blair waterways will hitch rides on trucks or trains to Eastern Washington, where wheat, barley and hay are major crops.

Native to Europe, the Mediterranean snail has been known to gum up combines and repel livestock.

In late October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture told more than a dozen Tideflats property owners to cut brush and spread snail bait on nearly 170 acres. If they don’t comply within 25 days, the department may do the work and bill them.

So far, the snails haven’t moved beyond the Tideflats, where they were first discovered nearly two years ago. Since then, agriculture officials have counted thousands of snails.

Nobody knows how or exactly when the snails landed in Tacoma, but Agriculture Department officials say the likely route was international trade.

“It’s been a kind of an uphill battle to convince people this is a large enough threat that action really needs to be taken,” said Jim Marra, the scientist in charge of the state’s efforts to control the snails.

Some businesses, such as chemical producer Graymont Western U.S. Inc., say the federal order to kill snails isn’t likely to present much of a hardship. Others say they can’t meet the deadline.

“We just physically cannot accomplish that in the time period,” said Bill Elmer, environmental manager at American Construction Co., a marine contractor headquartered on the Hylebos Waterway.

Elmer said he’ll likely make a formal request for relief. He’s assigned an equipment operator to clear a couple of acres now choked with Himalayan blackberries and construction debris, but the waste is piling up and he’s running out of room.

Clinton Campbell, the U.S. Department of Agriculture official who delivered the order, said his agency is willing to work with property owners.

“We are just trying to reduce cover and hiding places for the snail,” he said. “The good thing is that this particular infestation is limited at this point and the idea is to keep it that way.”

In Australia, snails caused farmers to lose money on the export of contaminated barley in the 1980s. If the snail isn’t controlled, something similar could happen here, Marra said.


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