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Get the Vermin

Legislature could make it easier to spray

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Every session has its unanimous votes. This year's feel-good bills include the Elevator Safety Code Act, a resolution commending the Boise State football team and a ban on shooting animals over the Internet. But sometimes a contagious unanimity leads to unforeseen problems.

Federal legislation passed in the wake of 9/11 comes to mind. Or a measure, now one step from Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's desk, that promises to aid in the battle against West Nile virus.

House Bill 178, the Mosquito/Vermin Abatement Act that passed the House without opposition and scheduled for debate on the Senate floor this week, could open up a can of (dead) worms for organic farmers or anyone concerned about the public application of pesticides.

The bill makes it easier to form abatement districts, especially when the onslaught of pestilence is deemed a public-health emergency. But left out of the debate are people who are concerned about mosquito-borne illnesses, but who have equal concerns about the liberal use of chemicals by most abatement districts in Idaho.

"If what happens as a result of this bill is more spraying, we will have gone backwards," said Peter Dill of St. John's Organic Farm in Emmett.

Sustainable farming activist Jennifer Miller was at the Statehouse last week with another local organic farmer. They were trying to figure out the status of the bill and see if there was any way left to testify or get it amended. But the bill had already passed the House and was headed to the Senate floor. Organic farmers had not participated in the hearings, and lawmakers never considered exactly how we go about killing mosquitoes in Idaho.

"We really want to be sure that people can protect the health of their families and ensure the continued economic prosperity of organic farms in the valley," said Miller, Boise-based sustainable agriculture program coordinator for the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. For many elected officials, last summer's West Nile scare was justification enough.

"The reason for the bill is to help combat West Nile Virus," said Rep. Darrell Bolz, a Caldwell Republican who helped carry the bill.

The bill allows for the emergency formation of a pest control district and gives abatement districts some additional powers. In fact, it removes "mosquito" from the state law, allowing other vermin (e.g., black flies in Twin Falls) to be controlled as well. It also lets abatement districts contract out pest control to other government agencies or even to landowners. And it does have a clause, aimed largely at organic producers, that allows for an opt-out: Anyone who does not want their property abated (read: sprayed with poisonous chemicals) can submit a written vermin management plan to the district.

The bill does not specify what should be in the plan, and it allows the abatement district to spray if it finds that the plan fails. It does not provide for advance warning of spraying. Miller and the owners of Boise's Peaceful Belly Organic Farm want a stronger opt-out option in the bill.

Some towns, like Mountain Home and Payette, have not been able to get enough land owners to vote to fund their abatement districts, despite serious problems with the disease-carrying pests. This bill, supported by the Association of Idaho Counties, would take a bite out of Calamine lotion sales in these areas, possibly forcing abatement on citizens who have opposed it for years.

Organic farmers had a scare last summer when Ada and Canyon counties, with very little public warning, decided to fly over much of the Treasure Valley, including urban areas, trailing a cloud of pesticide as they went. Bolz said he was out of town during the aerial spraying and seemed to think that aerial application of pesticides is a relic from the 1950s. Many Boise residents also thought the practice to be antiquated and fled the city during the spraying.

Jack Bennett, Ada County Mosquito Abatement District field operation manager, said his only regret is that they waited about three weeks too long to spray.

"The results that we got were just fantastic, it really knocked them down," Bennett said. "We do everything we can to keep from spraying, that's just the last resort." But killing adult mosquitoes with pesticide sprayed from the back of a truck or, in bad years, from an airplane, is a major part of the county's plan for abatement.

This is not the most effective way to manage mosquitoes, Miller said, and it gives the public a false sense of security.

"With mosquitoes, what really helps is to remove their breeding grounds," she said. People can get rid of stagnant water, fix screens on doors and windows and wear long sleeves.

The cost/benefit analysis on spraying is complicated. For many years, the health risks of West Nile were downplayed, said Lois Levitan, a leading expert in West Nile risk assessment at Cornell University in upstate New York. Levitan interviewed mosquito abatement guys (she says they are mostly guys) from all over the country a few years ago and came away with much respect for the work they do.

"If you want to understand mosquito biology, these are the guys to talk to," Levitan said. But at the same time, it is not proven that spraying adult mosquitoes is an effective approach, and we are quick to use pesticides, with little thought for the health risks.

"Really, there is much too much unconscious use of pesticide," Levitan said.

Some urban abatement districts have foresworn pesticides for flying skeeters in favor of more proactive abatement tactics (killing larvae, eliminating stagnant pools). And Gem County is turning to more preventative measures after Dill's lawsuit.

"People should work together and speak clearly with county officials," Dill said. "It's also our right to determine what's going to be cast upon us and we don't want toxics."

You can reach BW Statehouse reporter Nathaniel Hoffman at 208-331-8371.