Permit problems plague mosquito control

By Steve Estes

As residents across Big Pine spend their days huddled indoors or busily swatting mosquitoes, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District and US Fish and Wildlife Service are in what both hope is the final days of finalizing the annual permit that will allow the bug killers to redeploy spray trucks on the island.

The two agencies collaborate every year on a new federal permit to authorize the use of aerial mosquito toxin. This year, the permit lapsed before it was finalized, so the bug control district has been unable to spray for adult mosquitoes on Big Pine for more than two weeks.

And once that permit is issued, the rules surrounding spraying on Big Pine will probably be more restrictive than they have been the last five or six years.

At the crux of the issue is the Bartram’s and Leafwing butterflies. Both are expected to be listed in short order as endangered species under the auspices of the federal Endangered Species Act. USFWS is the oversight agency responsible for species protection under the ESA.

According to a recent letter from USFWS to Monroe County, Big Pine Key is one of only two locations in the United States where the Bartram’s Butterfly exists. The service is unsure if any Leafwing Butterflies still exist, but Big Pine does contain suitable habitat for the existence of the butterfly. Regardless of location, the service estimates that less than 800 adult Bartram’s and less than 200 adult Leafwing butterflies remain.

The critical habitat for the butterflies is pine rockland, where nearly all of the US’s remaining stock is located on Big Pine Key. Pine rocklands are home to croton, which is the nesting plant for the butterflies.

In order to conduct aerial spraying of adulticide for mosquitoes, the district needed to supply USFWS with drift pattern studies to show where insect toxins might disperse from aerial spraying.

That information was supplied Tuesday, said FKMCD Executive Director Mike Doyle.

“The aerial spray is a very low concentrate,” said Doyle. “We’re not sure there is adequate scientific evidence to indicate our mosquito toxin will harm the butterfly, but USFWS has its mission.”

Doyle said his agency has already received its permit for larvacide treatments, or the current mosquito problem would be far worse than it is.

He said that the district kills about 90 percent of the mosquito population through larvacide treatments, dropping toxins into the areas where the mosquitoes most often breed and knocking off the young bugs before they hatch or soon after.

“Without the work we do on the outer islands, where the majority of mosquitoes breed, the problem would be much worse than it is,” said Doyle.

“So it’s the remaining 10 percent of the potential mosquitoes that are giving us our current problem,” said Doyle.

Mosquito control is under state mandate to kill the flying insects and ease the nuisance caused to humans by mosquito bites, but that mandate has its limitations.

Without USFWS approval, the district cannot potentially harm listed species without a bona fide health threat to humans.

The mosquitoes currently feasting on Big Pine Key and No Name Key residents are saltmarsh mosquitoes, “And they don’t carry diseases that can harm humans. They are simply a nuisance,” said Doyle.

The state mandate doesn’t cover nuisance, ergo, no spraying for bugs without the permit.

There is at least one butterfly habitat area in the interior of Big Pine near the Blue Hole observation area, and at least one other confirmed habitat area in Koehn Subdivision.

Those have always been areas where mosquito control was difficult anyway, says Doyle.

“We have known of the butterfly issue for several years, but because they are about to be listed as endangered species, USFWS wanted more information from us than they normally do and it took us some time to get that together,” he added.

According to Refuge Manager Nancy Finley, mosquito control can spray anywhere it wishes outside the refuge, but it requires a federal permit to spray on the refuge.

“We started talking about this back in April and hoped the permit wouldn’t lapse,but we didn’t get everything we needed until Tuesday,” she said.

That information has been forwarded to the service’s ecological services division in Vero Beach, Fla. and she said it should be a matter of days before the permit can be acted on there.

“We are doing everything we can to expedite the permit,” she said.

She agrees with Doyle that species issues do cause problems for the district in certain areas.

“With the permit, the agency can spray at will as long as it can prove with some degree of certainty that the drift won’t potentially harm the butterfly habitat,” said Finley.

With the imminent listing of the butterflies as endangered species, anticipated to happen in weeks, the scientific consultation with USFWS becomes more complicated.

“The croton plant habitat along with pine rockland areas gives a larger area of concern and that concern must be addressed,” said Finley.

One of the reasons permitting in cases like this can be so tedious, says Finley, is that under the terms of the ESA, the degree of threat to the species isn’t taken into account.

“We are still required to address the threat regardless of the level of the threat,” she said.

According to Doyle, areas where butterfly habitat exists have been more of a logistical problem in recent years.

“We can spray on private property, but if we spray into an east wind, the drift goes west, and maybe into a butterfly habitat, or the other way. So we just don’t spray those areas unless we get a consolidated number of calls about the problem,” said Doyle.

When spraying does occur in those areas the drivers are required to turn on the nozzles across the private property and turn them off on refuge-owned lands.

“In the patchwork that is refuge/private property boundaries on Big Pine, we may only have a 50-foot swath we can spray before we turn the nozzles off again,and we keep going like that. That type of procedure is too manpower and supply intensive to maintain,” he said.

Finley said that USFWS and the district plan to open a dialogue this fall to alleviate the need for an annual permit.

“We need to discuss a long-term mosquito control plan. The Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the refuges requires a mosquito management plan and we want to work with the district to develop something that serves the needs of both agencies,” said Finley.

Doyle said that conversation needs to include new techniques for mosquito control in heavy human/wildlife interface areas such as Big Pine.

“We have successfully tested our barrier treatments in Ocean Reef, but that was all private property without the need for species sensitivity,” said Doyle. “We have to be able to do some things differently if we’re to be successful in our mission of controlling mosquitoes for the people of Big Pine and No Name Keys.”

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