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Mosquitoes: How two different communities manage the 'most dangerous animal'

Two people in light hazmat gear stand in front of a white truck outfitted with mosquito spray.
Teton County Weed and Pest
Teton County uses a control method called 'integrated mosquito management', which is preferred by the American Mosquito Control Association. Surveillance and larvacide are key for the program.

Picture a summer, Wyoming evening, with friends hanging by a lake or river, maybe catching some fish or having a cookout. But, who else is there? Mosquitoes.

People living in Wyoming are very familiar with mosquitoes. In fact, there are 45 species in the state. To keep them away, people use personal bug spray, citronella candles, head nets, etc.

"You're so annoyed by it, you can't tolerate it," Scott Schell, a University of Wyoming Extension entomology specialist, said. "And so that's why a lot of abatement districts are formed either to protect kids, towns, or even provide relief to their livestock."

Some Wyoming communities use abatement programs to manage mosquito populations in an entire area throughout the summer, and there are different techniques.

Schell said the cheapest option is using adulticide, which kills adult mosquitoes.

The Sublette County abatement program applies adulticide primarily via helicopter. The helicopter blankets the town of Pinedale with spray, leaving a garlic-like smell in the air for a couple hours. Shortly after, most mosquitos are gone.

The chemical is malathion. According to the label, it is harmful to humans and animals if swallowed or absorbed through skid, and it is toxic to aquatic life.

But, Schell said it is all about dosage.

"The stannous fluoride in toothpaste, you know, you brush your teeth with it. But if you ate a tube of toothpaste, you'd probably toxify yourself to some degree," he said. "This is the same thing with insecticides."

Some Pinedale residents, like Linda Baker with the Upper Green River Alliance, think the helicopter spraying technique is reckless.

Looking down a street in Sublette County. A helicopter flies in the distance.
A helicopter sprays the town of Pinedale with adulticide, which contains malathion.
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Austin Mansell

"They're spraying Pine Creek. They're spraying people. And they're spraying plants," Baker said.

The Sublette County Abatement District No. 1 board declined to comment.

However, their website deems Fyanon, which is synonymous with malathion, safe.

"Fyfanon is labeled for aerial and ground-application mosquito control and has been an important tool for mosquito control in the U.S., Canada and around the world for 60 years," according to the website.

In an email, Pinedale's Mayor Matt Murdock said he is aware of the controversy, but that mosquito abatement is crucial for quality of life and disease prevention, like West Nile Virus, which is present in Wyoming.

Experts agree that some kind of mosquito management is necessary because of disease transmission.

"Mosquitoes are the most dangerous animal on the planet," Mikenna Smith, an entomologist for the Teton County Weed and Pest District, said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mosquitoes kill more people than any other creature in the world.

Teton County uses a control method called 'integrated mosquito management', which is preferred by the American Mosquito Control Association. Smith said the process starts with surveillance.

"Once we understand the mosquitoes and what species we have, where they're occurring, in what numbers, then we can make a much more informed decision about control," she said.

For control, Teton County uses larvicide, which kills mosquitoes in the larvae stage. It is applied by hand where mosquitoes breed.

"You can target immature mosquitoes that are confined to aquatic environments, using products that are so incredibly specific to mosquitoes that kill them before they even become a threat," Smith said.

She added that adulticide is used as a last resort, and is only sprayed in targeted locations from a truck, because of its effects on the environment. Also, the adulticide used in Teton County does not contain malathion, but rather Permethrin, which studies show is safer for people and the environment.

Malathion is highly toxic to bees. However, some experts have said if applied in the correct dosage and at dawn or dusk, when bees are not flying around, the negative effects are decreased.

Back in Pinedale, Randy Williams with Sticky Mountain Honey said their bees have not been affected by the blanket spraying of malathion.

"We will go out an hour before they get there, and just cover hives and make sure that the bees can't leave the hive and leave them for about two hours after the spray," he said.

Williams said he has concerns for wild pollinators, but he also appreciates the abatement program.

"I also despise mosquitoes and enjoy a town that doesn't have any," Williams said. "So there's two ways to look at that and sometimes we can't have our cake and eat it too."

By September, mosquitos will not be much of a concern in most of Wyoming. The below freezing nightly temps kill them all off.

Corrected: August 2, 2022 at 11:40 AM MDT
This story was updated on August 2 to reflect that Teton County's adulticide does not contain malathion, but rather Permethrin, which studies show is safer for people and the environment.
Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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