Joe Wagner is close enough to the wildlife refuge that snakes along the Minnesota River to be able to see it from where he farms.
“I’m outside all the time,” he said, “and there’s a mountain of mosquitoes. Three weeks after a big rain, we are inundated. And meanwhile there’s hundreds of acres of wetlands that aren’t being treated at all.”
He is not the only member of the Scott County board who has complained over the years that a large and growing Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge — adding lots of acres and converting even more of them back to swamps — is growing a huge crop of insects.
In a summer that entomologists say is not off-the-charts bad but worse than some previous seasons, those grumbles are rising to the surface again.
Metro mosquito control district crews spend $17 million “and probably treat about 5 percent of what’s out there, and you cannot measure their results,” Wagner said, sounding about as heated as he ever gets. “What a scam! I love a great scam, and this is one of the best.”
The district, however, maintains that it absolutely does measure results, meticulously so, right down to weekly bug counts and charts and graphs correlating those counts with citizen complaints.
So are things really that bad in rural Scott County, and are the Purity Police at the refuge in any way to blame?
Yes, maybe, sort of, in a certain sense, officials say.
Taking them one at a time:
Q: How bad is it in rural Scott County?
A: Not so great. The latest bug hot spot maps, assembled from scores of bug traps left out every Monday all across the metro area, show very high counts in parts of the county.
Case in point: The peak within the county of numbers of human-biting skeeters one Monday this month was 2,096 in the vicinity of New Prague.
That was several times higher than traps near the refuge.
But the counts recorded near the refuge were themselves several times higher than counts recorded in some more populated parts of the county and the metro. Along the river, they tended to fall into the 600 to 800 range, vs. as low as 20 to 40 in some parts of Scott and Dakota counties.
Q: Does the refuge forbid mosquito control?
A: Normally, yes, said Richard Speer, the acting refuge manager.
“Our guidance is to allow populations of mosquitoes to exist unless they pose a specific threat to wildlife or human health. They are part of the natural food chain and help feed migratory birds, which feed extensively on mosquitoes and larvae.
“We do work closely with the mosquito control district and have a good relationship with them.”
Q: What mainly accounts for the severity of the problem in rural Scott?
A: One key point: While Scott is much worse off than Dakota, in general, there are much higher counts in parts of rural Carver County, far from the refuge. And there are high counts in remoter parts of Washington and Anoka as well.
“It’s a function of both population density and time,” said Mike McLean, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District. Population density meaning: We give priority to places with more people in them.
“In midsummer, it takes a mosquito about a week to go from egg to adult,” he said. “We concentrate on controlling mosquitoes while they’re still in the larval stage. … We treat mosquito breeding sites in the middle of the metro first. Then we proceed to more breeding sites further and further out as time allows.
“Another factor is the way mosquito adults move in the environment. Depending on species, they can drift several miles over their life span. Folks living on the edge of our treatment area may be affected by mosquitoes drifting in from untreated areas, as well.”
Where rural Dakota is more farm-centered, rural Scott has lots of people on big rural lots. That often causes friction as they expect all kinds of suburban and urban services while being more spread out and harder to serve.
Contrary to what some in Scott seem to feel, the mosquito control district does not perceive the refuge as an obstacle, McLean said.
“We have a relationship with them much like the DNR [the state Department of Natural Resources]: There are high-use areas like Fort Snelling where we do do treatment. But the refuge is a huge swath through the metro. …
“Our position is, people living next to natural areas sometimes have to take the bad with the good,” McLean said.
That said, Wagner does maintain that if he “whines enough” the district will specially treat an area for a major event such as a wedding. And he admits he does totally understand the environmental issues with mosquito control.
“I’m checking my beehives right now,” he said. “Bees need water, and I have a pond that mosquito control doesn’t know about, and that’s wonderful because I don’t need contaminants from them.”
Q: Any prospects for change in the refuge’s approach?
A: Commissioners have commented over the years that different refuge managers can take differing positions, and this summer, a new manager is about to take charge.
If the good news for critics is that former leader Charlie Blair is gone, though, the bad news is, he didn’t go far: He’s the new Midwest Regional Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System.