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Mosquito control: Will it be yes or no?

Wetlands, like this one off Highway 525 in Freeland, could be the target of a mosquito control district if Island County voters get the chance to vote on the issue. - Matt Johnson
Wetlands, like this one off Highway 525 in Freeland, could be the target of a mosquito control district if Island County voters get the chance to vote on the issue.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

For Dr. Roger Case, the future of controlling mosquitoes and a disease they spread comes down to fear.

The same goes for South Whidbey property rights activist Rufus Rose. And for anti-pesticide proponent Lori Oneal. For that matter, Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell has some fears, too.

These fears are all a little different, depending on the person. Case, Island County's health officer, wants the county to put the concept of a mosquito control district to a vote, an action he said will give citizens a way to fight their fear and potential hysteria over the mosquito-bourne West Nile Virus. The vote could happen, if the Board of Island County Commissioners give it the go ahead in a public hearing next week. That is provided they can find enough support among the public to justify such a decision.

Whether it should is another matter. Though West Nile Virus -- which can cause a type of encephalitis -- killed more than 200 people in the United States last year, the threat posed by the disease, and powers of a district formed to control the mosquitoes that spread it, remain in question. West Nile is new to the United States and, compared to other illnesses, causes relatively few deaths annually. At the same time, opponents of a mosquito control district say a district in Island County would have almost unlimited power to enter, control and condemn private property in the interest of controlling mosquitoes.

On top of that, almost no one -- Case included -- sees West Nile Virus and the mosquitoes that spread it as real public health threats at the moment. Only one case of the virus, involving a horse, occurred in Island County last year.

Is it really a threat?

Using statistics compiled about the disease of the past three years, less than one person is likely to die in Island County annually from West Nile Virus. In an interview last week, Case noted that statistics can be both misleading and dangerous, especially when dealing with an emerging disease. While the virus is not much of a threat now, it may be in the future.

"We're going to hear a lot more about West Nile Virus this year," he said.

Others are less convinced. Rufus Rose, who has attended a number of county meetings about the disease and control districts and who has known Case personally for years, said he's concerned the county health department -- the push behind the control district idea -- is trying to sell something before the true cost is known.

"I think it's damn poor government," he said, speaking from his Clinton home last week. "I think the risk of West Nile Virus needs to be put in perspective."

Killing off mosquitoes is generally offered as the best way to stop the spread of West Nile Virus, hence the local push for a mosquito control district. An initial proposal for a district in Island County, which would be the 16th in Washington if approved by voters, would have property tax payers funding it at a rate of 10 cents on every $1,000 of property value. Mosquito control districts can levy up to 50 cents, with a 60-percent approval from voters.

Right now, mosquitoes aren't even a nuisance problem in much of Island County. The last time they got much notice was in 1995, when clouds of mosquitoes hatched out of still waters all over the county. That was the year 1,200 people living on Camano Island decided to start their own control district. Grant Lawrence, director of that district's board, remembers clouds of mosquitoes so thick that he had to run between his house and car that summer to avoid getting bitten.

"They'd bite the dogs and the horses standing outside were red with blood," he said.

Since then, the Camano district has used Bti, a bacteria that eats the stomachs of mosquito larva, to control the mosquito population around Livingston Bay and Triangle Cove. The substance is spread in fresh and brackish coastal waters in small "doughnuts" mosquito larva eat.

Seven years of treatment have made mosquitoes less of a nuisance, Lawrence said. But now that West Nile Virus has made it to Island County, his district has a new mandate. Last year, district personnel started testing dead birds and sampling adult mosquitoes to determine if the virus is on the island. The lab tests aren't back yet, but Lawrence said he has enough information to know that all of Island County should have a mosquito control district.

"If they don't (do something), somebody's going to get sick and then there'll be heck to pay."

No guarantees

Even if Island County forms a control district and declares war on mosquitoes, there is no guarantee that will keep people from getting sick.

The Metropolitan Mosquito Control District, a government entity that does mosquito control for 2,600 acres and 2.5 million people in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in Minnesota, has been fighting mosquitoes since 1958. Jim Stark, the public affairs coordinator for the district, said that while the larval control keeps mosquito populations to about one-fifth of what they would be if uncontrolled, West Nile Virus has still taken hold. Eleven people living in the district and about 300 horses were diagnosed as having the virus last summer.

Keeping the disease at bay is complicated by the logistics of the problem. First, the district is trying to decide which mosquitoes to target -- which is tough, since that area is home to 51 varieties of the insect. Culex mosquitoes, which have been fingered as the most likely spreader or vector for the virus, generally don't bite humans until late summer. Other mosquitoes are known for biting people but are considered less likely to spread the disease because of how the virus works in their bodies. At present, Stark said, the district is controlling them equally until one type or the other becomes the more obvious target.

At the same time, the district has its field technicians sampling and testing mosquitoes starting in early spring. When one variety of mosquito is found to be more abundant than it should be, the district targets it.

How West Nile will spread in the district this summer is anybody's guess. Stark said the district can't wipe all the mosquitoes out; it can only manage the problem.

"Our goal is to protect public health," he said.

Powers, chemicals may be too intrusive

Opponents of a mosquito control district in Island County have started to form an unusual confederacy.

A few weeks ago, the Whidbey Environmental Action Network -- a group closely allied with the Island County No Spray Coalition -- put forth as its argument against a control district in property rights protection terms, something that would have been expected to come from other corners. In a brief explanation of the state law regarding mosquito control districts, WEAN points out that districts have the power to enter private property and use larvacides and other insecticides to kill mosquitoes. Districts may also drain wetlands and condemn private property if these measures are needed to deal with mosquito breeding grounds. A district may also sell condemned property to benefit itself.

Republican county commissioner Mac McDowell spoke against forming a district on those grounds at the Feb. 24 meeting at which he voted against taking the issue to a public hearing. He said a control district would have too much power over private property and little accountability, since district commissioners are appointed, not elected.

"A future board has almost unlimited authority," he said.

Health department officials, including Roger Case, see the issue another way. Anyone who believes that such a district is interested in controlling private property is mistaken, he said.

"I don't know what they think these people do," he said of mosquito control experts. "They're going to hunt for mosquitoes."

Property rights is not the only issue in the way of forming a control district. Those opposing the use of spray pesticides have been lining up against the issue. Lori Oneal, a chemically injured Clinton resident who worked with the No Spray Coalition to push for a ban last summer on herbicides sprayed by Island County road crews, said she is particularly concerned that a district could use spray insecticides on adult mosquitoes.

From the health department's perspective, Case said that option is "unthinkable" for mosquito control. But Oneal isn't cutting a future district any slack. County residents are better off protecting themselves from West Nile Virus by managing stagnant water on their property on their own, and by encouraging mosquito predators such as bats.

"There's a lot more ways to deal with this," she said.

Fear and worry over West Nile Virus is driving the control district discussion she said, emotions she said need to be calmed before a good decision can be made. She said she is skeptical of information about the disease and the role mosquitoes play put out by the Island County Health Department in recent weeks.

"Is it a deadly disease we all need to worry about or not?" she said.

In a way, the Board of Island County Commissioners will have the last word on that. When they meet next Monday to consider sending the issue to an election -- an election likely to cost tens of thousands of dollars -- the three commissioners will be looking to those at the hearing for some guidance. Commissioner Mike Shelton said he would need to see a big show of support at the hearing to vote for an election.

"If we had a packed house that said 'yes' to this, that would be important in my decision," he said.

But as it stands now, Shelton said he does not see that happening, which could make West Nile Virus and mosquito control issues that come back to the table in the future.

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