Emerald ash borer (source: Tennessee Department of Agriculture)
GATLINBURG (WATE/AP) - The destructive emerald ash borer has been found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In a news release sent Thursday, park management stated the beetles were discovered last week in traps at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and in the Greenbrier area, both on the Tennessee side of the 500,000-acre park on the North Carolina border.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist confirmed the discovery.
The insect was first found in Michigan in 2002 and has damaged millions of ash trees as its range spread.
Biologists said the pest lays eggs in bark crevices of all species of ash. As the eggs hatch, the larvae burrow into the tree, creating tunnels that block the tree's ability to pull up fluids and nutrients. The tree gradually starves and dies.
Biologists believe the beetles arrived at the park with some help from visitors.
"It can fly a few miles on its own, but it gets moved a lot faster from people driving hundreds of miles with contaminated wood," said park biologist Glenn Taylor.
Some of the trees at the park still have a chance of survival, but not all of them.
"These trees still look very healthy, so it's good. We can start to determine some of those treatment options. But we know that they're here before the tree starts losing its leaves and we start seeing dead branches," Taylor added.
Park visitors were disappointed to hear the news, knowing the damage the half-inch insects have done in nearby counties.
"Well, It's not going to be as pretty. Your leaves are going to comes off and they're going to turn ashen. They're not going to be as green. It's not going to be as pretty as it is right now," said park visitor Jeannette Keesee.
Just more than two percent of the forest is made up of ash trees.
Biologists in the park plan to use a type of insecticide to treat trees that are infected, but they won't be able to get to all of them.
6 News Reporter Jessa Lewis contributed to this report. Some portions of this report copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.