After a spring of heavy rainfall, mosquitoes are gaining the upper hand in the Animas Valley. But one Durango organization is battling back, and in the meantime saving lives, regional tourism and livestock – the Animas Mosquito Control District.
Unlike some jobs, in which employees joylessly perform work of no convincing social purpose in return for wages, morale is high at AMCD, where staff members daily collect mosquitoes from 16 traps around the district and gleefully exterminates mosquito larvae and adult mosquitoes throughout the Animas Valley using organic products: Natular and mineral oil.
Asked whether the mosquito is a worthy enemy, Melody Schaaf, office manager and lab technician, said, “oh, certainly,” her eyes shining with sudden intensity.
Such is their collective passion for killing mosquitoes. Schaaf said when mosquitoes bite her, she takes it somewhat personally.
Rick Jones, field technician, disagreed, saying, “I don’t take it personally; we’re all just trying to make a living.”
Joe Kuefler, who manages AMCD, said “he doesn’t take it personally because they’re female.”
Indeed, only female mosquitoes bite humans because they require blood meals to reproduce.
Throughout history, Kuefler said, only the bubonic-plague carrying rat rivals the mosquito as the animal deadliest to humans. Indeed, according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, every year, sharks kill 10 humans, humans kill 475,000 humans, and mosquitoes kill 725,000 humans.
As a vector of disease, the mosquito is without rival, carrying malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, encephalitis and – of special concern to Kuefler – West Nile virus.
Kuefler said a visitor to Africa could get bitten by an infected mosquito, and then return to the U.S., get bitten here, and suddenly, mosquitoes here are carriers.
Because of recent rainfall, the mosquito population in the Animas Valley is way up: For the last six years, Kuefler said, they collected about 12 mosquitoes from traps a day. Lately, it’s been 75.
In the district’s laboratory, where Schaaf identifies and tests the mosquitoes collected daily in each of the district’s 16 traps, mug shots hang on the wall: tarsalis, inonata, vexan, melanimon.
“The six species in Durango are all disease-carrying,” Kuefler said.
One study by the University of Colorado found that the Animas Valley had the highest concentration of mosquito eggs in the soil in the state.
The office combines an unrepentantly “us versus them” mentality and progressive environmentalism.
A trip through the Animas Basin on an amphibious 8-by-8 Argo Avengers that run $27,000 a piece (less than a year’s tuition at Harvard University, but “much more fun,” Kuefler said) felt like hunting for big game in Africa.
“It’s like a safari, except that our quarry is a lot smaller,” Kuefler said.
The operation runs on a $600,000 budget financed by a 0.99 mill-levy tax. About a third of the budget goes to Natular.
“It’s very expensive. But the board said, ‘use it.’ The politics of Durango have compelled us to move to a greener abatement process, meaning we leave a lighter and lighter environmental imprint.”
But like many effective public-health efforts, AMCD’s success has undermined the public’s sense of its necessity.
“It’s like vaccines,” Kuefler said. “New people don’t see the need.”
A review of the Herald archives shows that before AMCD was formed in 1960, Durango residents were driven mad by their tiny foes. A century ago in July 1915, the Herald reported that mosquito bites were so bad, they blighted local industry, preventing broad gauge engineers from sleeping.
In one 1953 editorial, the Herald’s former publisher Arthur Ballantine urged the district to raise the $500 needed “to destroy the invader and restore the Animas River to human enjoyment.”
Indeed, La Plata County director of Emergency Management Butch Knowlton, who grew up in Durango, is fond of telling people new to the Animas Valley that before mosquito control, the area was so rife with the insect that if you slapped a horse at dusk “you’d leave a bloody handprint.”
“West Nile is all around us,” said Kuefler, who spends most of his week trying to convince homeowners new to Durango to let him address the mosquito larvae on their property.
“But we haven’t yet found a mosquito with West Nile in our district, which is amazing,” Kuefler said.
The whole southern border of Colorado and northern New Mexico has very high rates of West Nile.
Ironically, Kuefler, his wife and livestock have all had West Nile. It killed the livestock.
“We don’t have any mosquito abatement where I live in Breen,” he said. Breen is just south of Durango and outside the mosquito district.
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