Mosquito drone prepares to take flight

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Jake Rubow, mosquito technician with the Flathead County Mosquito Control stands in front of the program’s new mosquito drone. Rubow says aerial application of larvacides is typically much more effective than ground-based treatments. (Kianna Gardner/Daily Inter Lake)

Spring in Northwest Montana really is the gift that keeps on giving — lake days become more viable, the Going-to-the-Sun Road works to sheds the last of its snow, bears come out of hibernation, as do ticks and mosquitoes.

And as the Flathead Valley launches into its annual battle to keep pests at bay, officials with the Flathead County Mosquito Control program are preparing to take those efforts to the sky via a mosquito drone — a remote-controlled aircraft that will apply U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-approved larvicides over areas that are densely populated with mosquitoes.

According to Jake Rubow, the mosquito control technician in charge of the program, research shows aerial application of larvicides is up to three times more effective at managing mosquito populations than ground-based treatments.

“We are anticipating that this will allow us to more easily access areas where for one reason or another mosquitoes are more dense, whether that’s in thick woods or a flooded area,” Rubow said.

After two separate proposals from the Flathead City-County Health Department, the nearly $23,000 technology set-up was approved by the county commissioners in March last year, funding for which was pulled from the capital improvement budget. Former Commissioner Gary Krueger turned down the original proposal, saying he wanted to review the county’s policies for aerial application.

According to Rubow, the drone was expected to take flight last summer following approval, but was delayed because the “application process was slower than anticipated.”

Rubow had to become licensed to operate the drone and the drone and chosen larvicides had to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, among other necessary hoops to jump through before the drone could serve its purpose.

According to Rubow, the mosquito drone program is the only one of its kind in the state of Montana. Certain counties in other states, including Idaho, Oregon, Washington and California, have seen success with similar drone technology, he said.

The department will be calibrating the drone for the next few weeks, a trial-and-error process that ensures a sensor or instrument used in measurement will produce accurate results. After the technology is properly calibrated, the drone will begin its aerial application of larvicides over areas that are beginning to flood around Flathead Lake.

“The lake is just now coming to full pool so a few areas around there are starting to see flooding, so we think that’s where we will be focusing our energy to start with,” Rubow said.

He said the department has received permission from multiple farmers to use their lands as the testing grounds for calibration.

While it is difficult to measure exact mosquito populations, Rubow said when looking at inspection records from 10 years ago, the mosquito season appears to be starting about a month earlier than it used to. A decade ago the season would start in early April; now it typically begins early-to-mid March.

“We are seeing a mix of things. Hotter, drier summers and other weather shifts that are causing mosquitoes to come out earlier,” Rubow said.

The drone, when officially calibrated and up and running, will serve areas with the most dense populations of mosquitoes, but in the meantime, Rubow said every Flathead County resident can play a part in managing mosquitoes.

“Any items around individual properties that can hold standing water, like tires and buckets, are perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Keep those empty and keep your grass mowed,” Rubow said.

Along with the annual arrival of mosquitoes comes an onrush of ticks.

According to Lisa Dennison, infectious disease and prevention control supervisor for Flathead County, ticks usually come out in full force in mid-spring. She said there are a number of climate factors that can determine when ticks emerge and how long they will stay, including humidity, snow melt and rainfall.

The most common tick-borne illnesses in the Flathead County area are Rocky Mountain fever and Colorado tick fever. Lyme disease has also been reported in the area, but according to Dennison, this particular disease is brought into Montana from travelers returning home.

“None of the tick species in Montana are ones that carry the disease,” Dennison said. “People will be recreating in an area with ticks that carry Lyme [disease] and then will bring that back home to Montana where they will seek treatment.”

According to the most recent records from the health department, from 2015 to 2017 Flathead County saw six cases of Lyme disease and one case of Anaplasmosis, a disease that comes from a black-legged tick and can lead to headaches, fever and other symptoms.

Dennison gave similar advice for avoiding ticks: keep grass mowed down, stick to marked paths during hikes and other outdoor activities and wear light-colored protective clothing.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@daliyinterlake.com

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