TRENTON — New Jersey may create a task force to come up with ways to control species that don't belong here, such as the spotted lanternfly and exotic ticks, and develop plans to restore some of the damage they've already done in the Garden State.

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Approved by an Assembly panel on Monday is a proposed law that would create a five-member Invasive Species Task Force, putting together minds from the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health, the State Forester, and Rutgers University.

"New Jersey is particularly susceptible to invasive species because of our proximity to New York City and Philadelphia," said Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling, D-Monmouth, a primary sponsor of the measure and chair of the Agriculture Committee.

Beyond studying the most effective means of controlling invasive species, the task force would also be charged with developing a plan to prevent new nuisances from entering New Jersey, and a plan to restore damage caused by invasive species.

"There's also invasive plants that are hurting our natural ecosystems — having a comprehensive approach to deal with it is important," said Drew Tompkins, director of policy for New Jersey Audubon.

"Over the years, there have been public agency task force workgroups on invasive species ... Reports have been filed, and they've been sitting on shelves," added Ed Wengryn, research associate at the New Jersey Farm Bureau.

The proposed law specifically requires the task force to evaluate the 2009 New Jersey Strategic Management Plan for Invasive Species.

The Garden State has been very vocal about the need to destroy spotted lanternflies, a species native to China that was first recorded in New Jersey in 2018. The bug has since been spotted in all 21 counties, with most seen in the counties that border Pennsylvania. More than 70 plant species are in danger from its presence.

New Jersey officials in late 2017 were first made aware of the Asian longhorned tick's presence in the state — it now has had a confirmed presence in many counties. According to the Division of Fish & Wildlife, loss of blood can kill animals that are heavily infested with this exotic tick species.

Responsible for killing tens of millions of trees in the U.S. since 2002, the emerald ash borer was first found in New Jersey in 2014, and was recorded in 15 counties as of December 2019. The invasive beetle first infests the top of a tree's crown, making it nearly impossible to spot them from the ground.

Brian Hackett, New Jersey state director for The Humane Society of the United States, said his group is supportive of the intent of the proposed task force. But they, along with other animal protection groups, worry that the task force won't have enough representation from non-governmental agencies.

"My concern is that this task force will just be more of the same if it's not going to be expanded and more inclusive of more expert stakeholders on these issues," Hackett said.

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