By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Hill County's proposed mosquito district will be put to the test this weekend as organizers attempt to gain public approval.
Volunteers will hit the streets with petitions in hand in an effort to secure the signatures of 25 percent of the registered voters within the proposed district. Organizer Terry Lilletvedt said a number of businesses have offered to allow volunteers to seek signatures on their property.
"This is a huge first step," she said. "We have to get the signatures for this to happen."
Organizers hope to have the district formed this summer so a funding measure can be placed on the November ballot. The district would oversee a comprehensive program designed to reduce what most view as a nuisance but what an expert warns could be much worse.
"Mostly we think of mosquitoes as an inconvenience," Montana State University-Bozeman entomologist Greg Johnson told a meeting of mosquito district supporters Thursday night. "Then last year West Nile virus came to Montana. It's not just a nuisance anymore. Now it's a problem. It is a major issue."
Since the mosquito-borne virus was first identified on the East Coast in 1999, it has spread across the country, with cases appearing in nearly every state.
Last year more than 4,000 people in the United States contracted the virus, resulting in 277 deaths, Johnson said. Four people in Montana were found to have the West Nile virus, though only two were infected by it in the state, he said.
More than 130 horses in Montana contracted the virus last year, and 38 died.
Birds are especially susceptible to West Nile because they are favored by mosquitoes over other animals. They make easy targets in the spring and early summer because they are nesting and often stationary, Johnson said.
According to the Northwest Mosquito and Vector Control Association, the disease cycle begins when a mosquito becomes infected by feeding on an infected bird like a raven or crow. After an incubation period of five to 15 days the mosquito can then transmit the virus to humans and animals by biting them.
In severe cases, the virus reaching the brain and causes inflammation of the brain tissue, a form of encephalitis. The inflammation interferes with the central nervous system.
The disease cannot be transmitted from person to person.
Johnson stressed that not every mosquito can carry the West Nile virus. Of the 40 species of the insect in Montana, only a handful can spread the disease.
Johnson, who formerly managed a mosquito control program in Boulder, Colo., made suggestions to district planners about what products are most effective in mosquito reduction.
The best method includes a combination of larvacides and adulticides, he said. Larvacides kill young mosquitoes as they mature on the surface of standing water. They include oils, sprays and pellets. Adulticides are the more traditional pesticides that are applied by fogging, either by truck or by airplane.
"If you only use adulticides, all you're doing is lowering the nuisance threshold," Johnson said, adding that the most effective programs use some combination of the two.
He said science and technology have developed some amazing products that have proven effective and have very little environmental impact. He mentioned BTI, a bacteria that can be added to standing water. BTI is harmless to fish, but is toxic to mosquitoes because of the way it interacts with the insects' hormones.
The proposed district will have to be created by the Hill County Commission. Once the required 1,730 signatures are collected, the commissioners will hold a public hearing to determine if the district should be formed. Securing funding from the voters for the project on the November ballot would be the next step.
Hill County weed coordinator Terry Turner said he expects the annual cost of the district to be between $80,000 and $100,000.
The district would cover an area six miles north to six miles south of Havre and extend from one mile west of the city east to the Blaine County line. The district would cover about 130,000 acres of land and 1,560 acres of surface water, Turner said.
District organizer Pam Harada said mosquito control is desperately needed in the Havre area.
"The fact that you can just be out in your yard and get infected - that's scary," she said.