Chris Tschinkel is stuffing mosquitoes into small plastic test tubes.
He’s the field operations manager for the North Fork Mosquito Abatement District. It’s a very small organization that tries to keep the local mosquito population under control. Their territory runs from Hotchkiss to Paonia and further up the valley.
It’s been around for decades, but has had a new motivation since the West Nile Virus showed up in 2006. Six years after that, the CDC labeled this area a West Nile epidemic. If Chris’s team can’t keep the population and West Nile under control, the government will step in and take over.
"If West Nile gets out of hand, the mosquito control will be taken out of local hands and go into the hands of the state or national government," said Tschinkel, "their response will be to areal fog at less-than-optimal times, which would probably have a tremendously negative effect on our economy."
What Chris means by economy is all the organic farms in the area. The North Fork Mosquitoe Abatement District uses bacteria, garlic sprays, and very soft chemicals that won’t interfere with an organic farm. Many chemicals used by other districts would invalidate an organic farm’s certification for years, essentially shutting it down.
Since the CDC labeling, though, they’ve had some really great years. Last year their numbers were down, but they found West Nile in mosquitoes in June.
This year their numbers are down again, and they still haven’t had a confirmed case of West Nile. It’s August. They’re months beyond where they could have expected to be.
To find West Nile, they separate the Culex mosquitoes, the species that carries West Nile, from the rest, cram them in a test tube, and blend them into a slurry. Then a centrifuge separates the liquid from the solids, and the liquid is then tested on the RAMP machine. They test the local mosquitoes twice a week.
Today's test is special.
This district has had some big events, from the BMW Bike Rally to Cherry Days. This test, the one Chris is doing right now, will tell him in a few seconds if they’re still West Nile free, even through the Delta County Fair last week, which saw thousands of people, thousands of possible West Nile cases.
West Nile affects mosquitoes too. Mosquitoes can be riddled with it, or just have a small amount of the virus, and be fighting it off. This test, the RAMP test, sees how much West Nile is there, and anything below 30 is a negative. The mosquito only has the sniffles, and isn’t dangerous to humans.
The machine spits out the numbers 15.2, 11.8, and 29.8.
"I don't like that number, but it's still a win for our team. Anything from 30 up to 100 is a warning sign," said Tschinkel, "anything below a 30 is considered a negative."
Today they won a battle, but the war will never be over.