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The war against purple loosestrife has been stepped up with the release last week of a dark cloud of more than 20,000 loosestrife-chomping beetles in the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge. Their mission: Chow down on the wicked weed.

Bob Lamoy, acting director of the refuge, pegged the number of bugs, which briefly darkened the skies over Montezuma at the northern tip of Cayuga Lake at about 9:30 a.m. Thursday, at somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000.

About 10,000 to 15,000 more will be released this week at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge south of Medina.

Loosestrife, that tall lavender plant that begins to bloom every year in late summer, is a relentless invader, covering an estimated 400,000 acres nationwide and crowding out other wetland plants and animals.

Loosestrife is prolific in areas as small as roadside ditches and as large as the Montezuma refuge, a 6,400-acre federally protected wildlife sanctuary at the northern tip of Cayuga Lake in Central New York.

Standing as high as seven feet, purple loosestrife grows in such thick tangles that other native plants get choked out, making life more precarious for waterfowl and other animals that need those plants to survive.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has dubbed purple loosestrife "Public Enemy No. 1" on federal lands. It's estimated that $45 million is lost each year on control efforts and damaged forage.

Many of the wildlife refuges in upstate New York are infested with loosestrife, which cannot be eradicated because herbicides that kill the plant are not approved for state-protected swamps and marshes.

"It forms an impenetrable tangle not suited for nesting birds, and insects don't eat it," said Bernd Blossey, a bio-control specialist at Cornell University who worked on developing a beetle to eat loosestrife.

Blossey did much of his beetle-raising and research at New York's Tonawanda State Game Preserve next to the Iroquois Refuge. Working with Dan Carroll of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Blossey's team last year released the leaf eaters in a section of the Tonawanda Game Preserve.

"We had dramatic results," Blossey said. "The beetles ate the loosestrife leaves, defoliating and killing the plants. We expect similar results at Iroquois and Montezuma."

As part of the government's counteroffensive, five species of loosestrife-eating beetles have been introduced in selected areas around the nation over the past four years. The species separately concentrate on a leaf-eating, flower-chomping and root-boring approach that appears to be working so far.

Researchers at Cornell used a $300,000 federal grant to breed the bugs. The beetles' diet consists only of purple loosestrife, so scientists hope to solve the problem without messy side effects.

Over a couple of decades, researchers predict the purple loosestrife population will be reduced by 90 percent.

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