Mosquito Hunters

By Beacon Staff

Against a hot and hazy sky, Erick Bailey slings on his backpack and prepares for battle.

With the pull of a cord and switch of a lever, Bailey walks into the tall grass on Leisure Island and begins his assault on one of mankind’s tiniest enemies: the mosquito.

Bailey is now in his second summer working for Flathead County’s Mosquito Control program. Five days a week, he and Kyle Howell go out to inspect mosquito prone sites across the valley and if they find it overrun, they go on the offensive.

Bruce Gunderson, the program’s coordinator, said that high-running rivers and standing ground water from a wet spring led him to believe that this summer would be a bad year for mosquitoes, but thus far that hasn’t panned out. At least in his opinion.

“It’s not turning out as bad as I thought,” he said. “(But) everyone’s definition of bad is different. You ask my wife and she’ll say six mosquitoes is bad, whereas a farmer will just keep going out and baling hay.”

Gunderson has been heading up the county-run program for five years and said he gauges the severity of a mosquito season on two things: the number of complaints he gets and what Bailey and Howell find in the field. This year the number of messages he finds on his answering machine every morning are fewer than summers past. But while it seems the number of mosquitoes is less than Gunderson expected – there are still millions out there. They have shown up in abundance in some new places. Gunderson said the Stillwater River is one such spot, along with anywhere stagnant ground water has remained since spring.

It is along that stagnant ground water you’ll likely find Bailey on most mornings, like last Thursday when he drove out to Leisure Island along the Flathead River to inspect a homeowner’s property.

Low-lying and swampy areas are where mosquitoes traditionally lay eggs, which can remain inactive for up to seven years, or until the next time the area is flooded. Once the conditions are right – with the combination of warm temperatures and water – an egg can become a flying adult in less than a week. From there the mosquito can live anywhere from three to 100 days. During that life cycle, the only chance to eliminate them is immediately after the eggs develop into larva. After that they become a pupae and then a full-grown adult.

To control the population, Bailey straps on a gas-powered backpack sprayer and treats the water with a series of environmentally friendly products, including BTi, a soil bacterium that resembles Grape Nuts cereal. But as Bailey points out, they can only manipulate the mosquito population.

“The mosquito has been here for millions of years,” he said while spraying a pool of water. “I mean we can control it, but we can’t eliminate it.”

Gunderson said reasons to control the population are many and go beyond the fact that mosquitoes are an annoyance to humans. According to the program, because of the diseases mosquitoes carry they are responsible for more human deaths than any other creature. Among the most well known is West Nile Virus.

Gunderson is quick to note, however, that no human in Flathead County has ever been affected by West Nile, though a few horses were diagnosed with it in 2009. Even if a mosquito carrying the virus were to arrive in the area, the likelihood of a human case is slim, he said.

“It’s not likely you’ll get bit by that mosquito, but the possibility is there,” Gunderson said, adding that eliminating the Culex Tarsalis type that can carry the virus is their primary job during the summer months.

Cam Lay, an entomologist for the Montana Department of Agriculture, echoed Gunderson’s sentiments, saying that mosquitoes are part of life.

“There are a lot more dangerous things than mosquitoes and the ways to avoid them are pretty easy. Use repellent and go forth and enjoy the outdoors,” he said.

Bailey follows that advice and lathers up with bug spray every morning, only occasionally needing to bat away a more daring mosquito, as he walks through swampy lowlands testing and treating water. Bailey receives some strange looks when he explains to people that his summer job is working as one of Flathead County’s mosquito hunters.

“When it gets nice out it’s fun to be here,” he said, walking back to his truck before heading to another site. “Looking back, it’ll be cool.”

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