Plan for mosquito-control drone grounded

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Flathead County would use an Argas MG1 remote piloted aircraft to apply granular larvacides to mosquito-prone areas. (Courtesy photo)

The Flathead City-County Health Department hopes to add another tool to its mosquito-control arsenal: a drone to apply insecticide to trouble spots where the bugs tend to breed.

But first the department, which oversees the county’s mosquito control program, will have to convince the county commissioners that a drone is the right method to help control mosquito populations.

A proposed amendment to the county capital improvement plan for $16,478 to buy a remote piloted aircraft for next summer’s mosquito season failed to pass for lack of a second. During Wednesday’s proceedings, Commissioner Pam Holmquist made a motion to approve the expenditure, but Commissioner Gary Krueger declined to second the motion. Commissioner Phil Mitchell was absent.

There was no discussion about the proposal, but Krueger told the Daily Inter Lake afterward he wants more information.

“I guess I want to see what Flathead County’s policies are for private property, where we will or won’t use” insecticides, Krueger said. “There may be people who don’t agree with aerial application and I want to make sure Flathead County has a plan put together.

“I’m not an environmentalist, but what the public is told is good for them sometimes comes back to bite us in the butt,” he continued.

The county tapped into drone technology for mosquito surveillance for the first time this past summer. The device was used to monitor flood-prone areas to gauge the amount of standing water.

“It became immediately apparent how easily we could treat these areas,” county Mosquito Control Technician Jake Rubow said.

County Health Officer Hillary Hanson echoed the success of the remote piloted aircraft surveillance of larval habitats during the 2017 season, noting it proved very successful in monitoring flooding and pinpointing sites that required physical inspection.

Hanson said she will resubmit the proposal to the commissioners for further consideration.

“I will not let it die,” she said.

The written proposal for the capital improvement program budget amendment noted that the drone surveillance “experience has highlighted the efficiency with which a remote piloted aircraft could treat sites and has paved the way for an expansion of the program.”

Flathead County Mosquito Control is registered with the Federal Aviation Administration and has a licensed drone pilot on staff.

Granulated larvacides and pupicides that target mosquitoes in the larval and pupal stages would be used, Rubow said. They’re much less toxic than adulticides that control adult mosquito populations, he added.

The proposed remote piloted aircraft is an Argas MG1 that measures about 3 feet in diameter.

The drone would not fly over private land without permission, Rubow pointed out.

Target sites include areas of large open tracts, along with areas that are difficult to access from the ground and exert excessive wear on the county’s current equipment. Areas of dense brush and cattails, fallen trees and submerged stumps and logs cause wear and tear to county equipment, according to the proposal.

Using a drone for aerial surveillance and applications wouldn’t eliminate the need for inspections on foot, but would reduce the number of ground-based treatments required of workers, the proposal noted.

It also pointed out a time and labor savings, using the Lakeside Water and Sewer District area as an example. Treatment time using a ground method — an Argo all-terrain vehicle — runs about 4.4 acres per hour. A drone could apply the treatment of 7 to 10 acres per hour.

Each labor hour saved in application time nets the program a minimum of $27.67 per hour based on the 2017 fiscal payroll numbers. The bottom line is up to a $110 savings per application.

Flathead County has operated a mosquito-control program for a number of years as a division of the City-County Health Department. The county can levy up to 1 mill to pay for staff and operational costs of mosquito control, county Finance Director Amy Dexter said. For the current fiscal year only .75 mill was levied, a total of $182,377, for the mosquito control program because that fund had a healthy cash balance, Dexter said.

The county employs two full-time control technicians and hires temporary workers in the summer.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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