As hunting season nears, many wildlife officials across
the upper Midwest are asking hunters to line up their sights on snouts and tusks, as well as antlers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brian Bull explains:
As hunting season nears, many wildlife officials across the upper
Midwest are asking hunters to line up their sights on snouts and
tusks, as well as antlers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brian Bull explains:
In Wisconsin alone, feral pigs are roaming through 27 counties. The
animals are damaging crops and hurting native ecosystems, and have
even killed small deer. And since an adult sow can wean up to a
dozen piglets a year, their numbers are hard to control.
Bryan Woodbury is a wildlife damage specialist with the Wisconsin DNR.
He says hunters should feel free to bag any feral pigs they meet – but
they should first make sure they’re not someone’s livestock.
“They’re not the distinct pink color, or the black and white style –
they tend to be darker color with longer hair, the boar may have a tusk
that you can see… they will pose a threat if you get up close to them
and tease them or threaten them in any way, they may do a charge or try
to fight back just like any other wild animal would try to do. But
their main instinct is to run away.”
Woodbury adds that feral pigs should taste just as good – if not
better – than those on the farm. Besides Wisconsin, many other
states are having problems with feral pigs, including Illinois,
Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
People’s fear of wolves led to a steady practice of bounties, poisoning, and trapping until the wolf pretty much disappeared from this region by the 1960’s. But a new survey confirms that these old attitudes have changed. A five-year study of people’s opinions about wolves was recently completed. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson has more:
People’s fear of wolves led to a steady practice of bounties, poisoning, and trapping until the wolf
pretty much disappeared from this region by the 1960’s. But a new survey confirms that these old
attitudes have changed. A five-year study of people’s opinions about wolves was recently
completed. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson has more:
More than 600 people in Michigan and Wisconsin responded to a survey about wolves. The
survey was done by Northland College Sociology Professor Kevin Schanning. Schanning says
people from both states feel the same way: more than half think wolves should be protected, and
most of the respondents appreciate wolves as a natural part of things:
“When you ask people ‘are wolves the symbol of the beauty and wonder of nature? Do we need
wolves to help manage the eco-system?’ 75 percent to 80 percent of respondents are saying ‘yeah,
we need wolves. They’re a part of our state now and we need to manage them, we need to protect
Even so, 62 percent of those surveyed said they worry about wolves being dangerous. And 41
percent are in favor of hunting wolves to manage their populations.
The cormorant population is booming in the region, and some anglers say they're competing too hard with the birds for fish. (Photo courtesy of Steve Mortensen, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe)
Don Schreiner is the DNR's manager of fisheries for Lake Superior. Every year, the hatchery at Knife River rears thousands of rainbow trout. (Photo by Stephanie Hemphill)
Robin Whaley likes to fish in the Knife River in Minnesota. Behind her is Knife Island, where officials are trying to keep cormorants from nesting. (Photo by Stephanie Hemphill)
Anglers around the Great Lakes are eager for a summer of fishing. Everyone wants to catch the big one. But they’re getting some competition. It comes in the form of the double-crested cormorant. The big black birds with long necks are fish eaters. Cormorants were nearly wiped out by the now-banned pesticide, DDT, in the 1970’s. But now cormorants are back in big numbers. Some anglers feel there are too many cormorants now. And they say the birds are eating too many fish. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports on one experimental effort to control cormorants:
Anglers around the Great Lakes are eager for a summer of fishing. Everyone wants to
catch the big one, but they’re getting some competition. It comes in the form of the
double-crested cormorant. The big black birds with long necks are fish eaters.
Cormorants were nearly wiped out by the now-banned pesticide, DDT, in the 1970’s. But
now cormorants are back in big numbers. Some anglers feel there are too many
cormorants now, and they say the birds are eating too many fish. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports on one experimental effort to control
(sound of waves)
Robin Whaley often fishes here on Knife River. It’s the biggest spawning ground for
rainbow trout on the north shore of Lake Superior. But today she’s watching the
cormorants on Knife Island, a quarter-mile offshore.
The cormorant population is booming. About a hundred cormorants lived on the island
“I guess they’re just coming up into this area in the last few years and becoming a
problem, for degrading habitat and for eating little fish.”
Cormorants are native to this area, but they haven’t been around much in the last few
decades, because of poisoning from the pesticide DDT.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources stocks rainbow trout here. This year
they put 40,000 young fish into the river. Anglers like Robin Whaley hope the little fish
will grow big enough for them to catch someday.
The little fish face a lot of predators and hazards and the cormorants are one more threat.
Some people would like to reduce that threat. It’s illegal to kill cormorants. They’re
protected by law because they’re a migratory bird.
But a new federal rule says if they’re threatening a resource, people can fight back in a
Bill Paul runs the Agriculture Department’s Wildlife Services Program in Minnesota. He
sent workers onto Knife Island to try to keep the cormorants from nesting. Their methods
are experimental – but they’re pretty basic.
“We put up some flapping tarps in wind, a couple of yellow raincoat scarecrows, we also
put up ten flashing highway barricade lights, we also have a light siren device out there
that goes during the night.”
The workers also used special firecrackers shot by guns at passing birds to scare them
They did this for two weeks during the cormorants’ nesting season. Bill Paul says even
with all that noise and commotion it wasn’t easy to scare them away.
“They seem to be fairly smart birds and real persistent at coming back to Knife Island.
So we’re uncertain yet whether our activities are actually going to keep them off there
As part of their study, researchers had permission to kill 25 cormorants to find out what
they’d been eating. They wanted to see how much of a threat the birds were to game fish
like the rainbow trout.
They found fish in the cormorants’ stomachs all right. But not the kind most people like
to catch and eat.
Don Schreiner supervises the Lake Superior fishery for the Minnesota DNR. He says
he’d need more than just a few samples to really know what the birds are eating.
“My guess is that cormorants are opportunists and if there’s a small silver fish out there
and he’s just hanging out and the cormorant has that available to eat, he’ll eat it. The
question becomes, is this a significant part of the population that they’re consuming, or
Despite the concerns of some anglers, researchers have been studying cormorants for
years, and so far they haven’t been able to prove the birds are harming wild fish
John Pastor is an ecologist at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He says the study at
Knife River won’t prove anything useful either.
He says it ignores the bigger picture. Pastor says you can’t just look at one predator and
come to any firm conclusions. There could be lots of reasons why there aren’t many
steelhead, or rainbow trout.
“Changes in land use. All the adult steelhead out there eating the young of the year
steelhead. Maybe it’s some pollutant in the lake. You never know. But it’s easy to fix on
the predator as the problem, because people see a cormorant dive down and come up with
a fish, and they say to themselves, I could have caught that fish.”
Pastor says even if the cormorants are eating lots of young rainbow trout, it doesn’t
necessarily mean the birds are hurting the overall trout population.
And even for an angler like Robin Whaley, the concern about the trout is mixed with a
feeling of respect for the cormorant.
“I admire the bird very much, but human beings, we’re in the business of controlling
habitats and populations, and this is just another case of that.”
For many anglers, the ultimate question in this competition between predators is simple.
It’s about who gets the trout – cormorants or humans.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.
Researcher Rolf Peterson has spent more than 30 years studying moose and wolves on a remote wilderness island in Lake Superior. Peterson says moose on Isle Royale are suffering from warmer-than-usual weather in recent years. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Researcher Rolf Peterson has spent more than 30 years studying moose and wolves on a remote
wilderness island in Lake Superior. Peterson says moose on Isle Royale are suffering from
warmer-than-usual weather in recent years. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie
There are 750 moose on Isle Royale. That’s down from 900 last year.
Isle Royale has had hot summers and warm, snowless winters most years since the 1998 El Nino.
Peterson says when summers are hot, the moose don’t eat enough. And they have to fight off
They spend a lot of time grooming when they should be feeding, and they lose a lot of blood,
potentially. It could be in the winter when they’re not in very good condition, they have to
replace their entire blood supply over a period of a few short weeks.
Meanwhile, wolves on the island are taking advantage of the weakness of the moose. Last year
there were 19 wolves; this year, 29. But Peterson says the wolf population will eventually
decline, as there are fewer moose to eat.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.
A hotly debated environmental issue goes on trial this week. New York’s notorious “Deer Lady” faces criminal charges of breaking the state’s feeding ban. Some states, including New York, have imposed bans hoping to stop the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease. The fatal brain disease has been found in deer and elk as far east as Wisconsin. But many animal activists say they don’t understand the need for feeding bans. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, Joyce Kryszak followed the “Deer Lady” into the park . . . and to the deer:
A hotly debated environmental issue goes on trial this week. New York’s notorious Deer Lady
faces criminal charges of breaking the state’s feeding ban. Some states, including New York,
have imposed bans hoping to stop the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease. The fatal brain disease
has been found in deer and elk as far east as Wisconsin. But many animal activists say they don’t
understand the need for feeding bans. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, Joyce Kryszak
followed the Deer Lady into the park . . . and to the deer:
Anita Depczynski is almost deer-like in appearance herself. The sixty-three year old retired
cleaning woman, now arthritic, is spirited, but a bit timid moving. And her big brown eyes peer
skittishly at those who recognize her in the park where she still goes to feed the deer.
“Are you the Deer Lady?”
“No, I’m not.”
This shy, relative newcomer to animal advocacy tries to avoid the attention the year-long case has
focused on her. Still, Depczynski isn’t easily frightened away. About a dozen deer, many she
calls by name, make their way across the snow covered path to greet her. They huddle around as
the Deer Lady scatters corn near her feet.
“Faline, that’s enough now, because I don’t have much. See? You can’t come in here with this
little bag like this – forget it.”
Depczynski faces up to forty-five days in jail if found guilty of breaking the state’s feeding ban.
But Depczynski says she won’t stop. As we trudge along the cold, windy nature trail, she
suddenly stops to explain. Depczynski says the deer living in this park would starve without her.
“I’m afraid about going to jail…but I have to stand my ground. Many people before me have been
Depczynski says people were feeding the deer in this park, long before she arrived. But she says
most have been intimidated to stop, or else deny they still do because of the new feeding ban.
Most of the park visitors we meet say they support Depczynski. And most say they don’t
understand what Chronic Wasting Disease and the feeding ban are all about.
Despite the confusion, wildlife experts say the feeding ban is necessary. They say it’s part of the
effort to stop the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease. The disease hasn’t hit this part of the world
yet. But the bans are intended to prevent the introduction of Chronic Wasting Disease. Experts
say the bans help discourage deer from artificially congregating together. And that’s important,
because it’s believed Chronic Wasting Disease could be passed along through deer feces and
urine. Wildlife expert Joel Thomas says he knows Depczynski and others think they’re helping.
But Thomas says this isn’t a Disney movie. And he says feeding wildlife, especially deer, is
never a good idea.
“It sustains them, and that’s all it does. And in the long term, it really upsets herd health when
people get involved with feeding them. We feed deer the wrong things, we feed them at the
wrong time, we feed them for the wrong reasons. So, they’re just not a species that benefits from
that type of human intervention.”
And Thomas says there’s scientific evidence suggesting that the well-intentioned meddling could
do a lot more than throw off the balance. He says it could encourage the spread of Chronic
Wasting Disease and devastate the North America’s deer population.
“If the deer are left to browse, and live their lives, largely without this type of artificial
concentration that we provide with feeding, then any kind of disease – Chronic Wasting or
otherwise – that enters into an animal population, won’t be spread so fast so severely. It’s a health
check, if you will. It’s kind of like a fire wall.”
But the Deer Lady, Anita Depczynski, says that’s an imaginary firewall in this case – and in many
other suburban areas. She says generations of the same deer have been congregating in her park
and being fed by residents for years. She says they’re trapped here, surrounded by houses and
highways. And she says when they have to go looking for food, the results are heart wrenching.
We saw that, first hand, a little while later on the trail.
“Oh no, look he’s wounded? Look at his leg, it’s infected…I know, they told me about her
yesterday. Leave her alone. I don’t want her destroyed. See what happens?”
The yearling stood shaking on three legs in a thicket along the trail. Her fourth leg was ripped off
below the hip, presumably by a car. The DEC came later that day, and put her down.
Depczynski says the deer was another casualty of the state’s feeding ban. But wildlife expert Joel
Thomas says it’s nature taking it’s course.
“Not all animals are intended to survive in a population. It’s population dynamics, it’s biology, it’s
nature, it’s the way the planet spins.”
And Thomas says to interfere with that is to risk the spread of diseases – such as Chronic Wasting
Disease – that could wipe out an entire species. But Depczynski believes New York is over-
reacting to a disease that is still many states away.
“If I thought I was harming wildlife, I’d be the first one to stop.”
Wildlife experts say convincing people like Depczynski is the biggest challenge in their fight
against Chronic Wasting Disease. Because they say, by the time the presence of the disease is
obvious, it’s already too late.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Joyce Kryszak.
Researchers collect as much information as they can to take advantage of the rare opportunity of being close to a tranquilized moose. (Photo by Stephanie Hemphill)
Many wildlife lovers consider moose to have a special mystique. Adult moose are bigger than horses, and they seem fearless. But biologists don’t know much about many moose populations. A team of researchers is just beginning to learn about one herd of 4,000 moose in the Northwoods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Many wildlife lovers consider moose to have a special mystique. Adult moose are bigger than
horses, and they seem fearless. But biologists don’t know much about many moose populations.
A team of researchers is just beginning to learn about one herd of 4,000 moose in the
northwoods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Half a dozen big four-wheel-drive pickups are parked at a boat landing on MacDougal Lake. It’s
about 30 miles west of the Lake Superior shore, in the heart of the Superior National Forest in
Northeastern Minnesota. The forest is twice the size of Delaware.
It’s 25 degrees. At the edge of the frozen lake, men in conservation officer uniforms are standing
around a small fire. They’re waiting to hear from the helicopter. The crew on the helicopter is
shooting moose with a tranquilizer gun. They need to get up close to the animals to learn more
Scientists think more moose could be living in this area. Mike Shrage is a biologist with the
Fond du Lac band of Chippewa. He says they’d like to know why there aren’t more moose here.
There are several possible reasons.
“Wolves, bears, lack of habitat, hunting and other kinds of human-related mortality, automobile
Shrage is listening to a radio cradled in a canvas holster on his shoulder. He cocks his head to
catch every word.
“There’s three of them there.”
The helicopter crew has spotted some moose.
“Yeah, I think they’re bulls.”
“These are three bulls. It’s not uncommon this time of year, you’ll get small groups of them
hanging together for awhile. Little bachelor groups.”
Shrage says the helicopter crew will try to chase one of the moose into an open area, like a frozen
lake, where they can get an easy shot.
“And if it lays down right in the lake, then they can sit down on the ice next to it. It makes
everything a lot easier.”
“Yeah, he’s gonna hopefully drop in the spot where they can get right to him.”
“I think they must already have a dart in him and they’re just waiting for it to take effect.”
The helicopter drops off a crew member to stay with the moose, and comes back to the boat
landing to pick up a radio collar.
(sound of helicopter)
Counting moose is a challenge. A recent survey in this area showed a drop from 5,000 to 4,000
animals in one year. But researchers admit there could be a 25% margin of error in those figures.
That’s because it’s hard to find the moose in heavily wooded areas. The collaring project will
make counts more accurate.
Three biologists are gathered around the latest moose to be fitted with a collar. He’s a mature
bull. He’s lying on his side in the middle of a huge frozen swamp.
He’s blindfolded to make the process less stressful. He seems to snore, while the biologists poke
They take blood samples to check on hormones and blood chemistry, and to look for disease.
They also pull a tooth to send to a lab. They can get an exact age by measuring the rings on the
Glenn Delgiudice takes notes on the animal’s fat reserves. That’s a good indication of its overall
Delgiudice even uses an ultrasound machine to measure the fat in the moose’s rear end.
“Rump fat is one of the main fat depots of these animals, and also one of the first to go. They
mobilize their fat depots generally in a sequence. So we measure the depth of the fat with
Another key indicator of the animal’s health is the condition of its hair. This moose has most of
its hair. They aren’t all so lucky. Some of them have scratched a lot their hair off.
<"Rick yesterday saw a calf of one of our cows that was what'd you say Rick, only 25% hair. So
that one's been rubbing and scratching for a long time. And, of course, when they're doing that
rubbing and scratching and biting, they're not foraging, and it can drain them over time."
The collar has to fit just right. If it’s too loose, a moose can get a foot caught in it. If it’s too
tight, it can bind, especially in the fall mating season when the bulls’ necks get thicker.
“Yep, that looks good.”
Finally the moose is given an antidote to the tranquilizer, pain-killer, and sedative that have kept
him immobile for about half an hour.
“You know, you’ll see his ears twitch, and he’ll start to lift his head,” Delgiudice says. “The
moose are better at getting up than deer typically. They just get up, loosen up a little bit, and
then lope away.”
The moose struggles up, stands for a minute, and then saunters off toward the trees.
That’s moose number five for the day. The team is planning to track 60 moose for five years.
It’ll tell them what kills these moose and what’s keeping the population from growing.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill, in the Superior National Forest.
Chronic Wasting Disease has killed deer and elk in 15 states. The fatal brain disease – first discovered in Colorado – has spread as far east as Wisconsin and Illinois. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Corbin Sullivan reports there is no proven plan to stop it from going further:
Chronic Wasting Disease has killed deer and elk in 15 states. The fatal
brain disease – first discovered in Colorado – has spread as far east as
Wisconsin and Illinois. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Corbin Sullivan reports there is no
proven plan to stop it from going further:
Michigan is the latest state to unveil a plan to prevent Chronic Wasting
Disease from crossing its borders. A state task force is urging more
effective tracking of captive deer and elk herds.
Howard Tanner is the co-chair of Michigan’s Chronic Wasting Disease Task
Force. He says, so far, there is no evidence of the disease in Michigan.
We’re gonna keep it out. We’re gonna prevent it. We don’t want to have to
deal with it after the fact if we can possibly avoid it.”
There are more than 3,000 deer and elk farms in the Great Lakes region.
Tanner says the farms are a risk because the animals can escape and infect
If Chronic Wasting Disease spreads throughout the Midwest, officials say it
could decimate the wild deer population.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium this is Corbin Sullivan.
Research assistant Molly Wright on the trail for
radio-tagged turtles. (Photo by David Sommerstein)
Driving on country roads can sometimes be like navigating an obstacle course of wildlife – deer, skunks, raccoons, frogs, and throughout much of the summer – turtles. Turtles like to lay their eggs along roadsides and become easy candidates for road kill. They live and reproduce for decades, so when an adult is killed prematurely, it can have a big effect on turtle populations as a whole. Researchers are trying to find out how often turtles cross the road and how to help them get safely to the other side. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:
Driving on country roads can sometimes be like navigating an obstacle course of wildlife – deer,
skunks, raccoons, frogs, and throughout much of the summer – turtles. Turtles like to lay their
eggs along roadsides and become easy candidates for roadkill. They live and reproduce for
decades, so when an adult is killed prematurely, it can have a big effect on turtle populations as a
whole. Researchers are trying to find out how often turtles cross the road and how to help them
get safely to the other side. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:
Tom Langen starts his day around 6 in the morning on the shoulder of a two-lane road in northern
New York State. He walks along and counts roadkill.
“We like to get out early before the traffic gets bad, but also before the crows and other animals
have drug everything away.”
When he finds a dead snapping turtle, he nudges it off the road and bends down to study it.
“So this is a female. It’s pretty mangled. Unfortunately I can’t see any of the banding on her
Each morning, he’ll find two or three like this. Langen’s a biology professor at Clarkson
University. He specializes in animal behavior. He’s trying to figure out whether a few smooshed
turtles a day is a little problem or a big one for the species as a whole.
His hypothesis is that it is a big problem. Turtles can live more than 60 years. And they have a
higher reproduction rate the older they get.
“So the old individuals are very important, and the older they are, the more important they are.”
Turtles like to live in marshes or ponds. But they like to lay their eggs in drier places. In what
Langen describes as a cruel twist of ecological fate, road berms are perfect. They’re dry, sandy,
and often close to marshes.
“The turtles have evolved over millions of years certain cues of what makes a good nesting site.
And by chance the roads that we’ve built in the last 50 to 75 years have some of those features
that match that so they’re tricked into going to those places.”
To figure out how many turtles are tricked into playing chicken with cars, Langen and his
research assistants catch turtles in nets. They inject them with a tag that identifies each
individual. So when they find a dead one, they know who it is.
They also want to know how far the turtles range. So they attach tiny radio transmitters to turtles’
shells and track their movements. That job falls to research assistant Molly Wright.
“Umm, we’re going to go after a snapping turtle. It’s a snapping turtle that we found in a swamp
by the Grasse River.”
(sound of sloshing water)
It’s known only as “Turtle #6”. Wright slogs waist deep through a marsh just off the highway.
She slings a radio receiver over her shoulder and holds an antenna like the one you’d put atop
“Yeah. That’s the noise that the radio antenna telemetry device makes for the turtle, so it’s a
pretty distinctive sound. It’s straight in front of us somewhere, the turtle is.”
We trudge slowly past green lilypads into the middle of the marsh. We clutch long grasses to
keep our footing among the muck and submerged logs. Wright sweep the antenna left and right.
She looks like a radio statue of liberty.
“People see us pretty regularly on like their drives to and from work and people bicycle. There’s
one man who pulled over and he’s like, “what’s up with that girl with the antenna on her head?”
“You see that moving right there?” “Yeah.” “That’s the turtle. It’s moving in the lilies.”
“Right there?” “Yup.” “That’s him right there. Turtle #6 has been found.”
Wright jots down the GPS coordinates, water temperature, and other observations in a notebook.
She notices we’re only several feet from the road. Of the 15 turtles she’s tracking, about a third
“I can’t make any conclusions from it because I haven’t done the stats yet, but you see a lot of
dead turtles on the road.”
The team of researchers will compile data over the next three years. They hope to get a sense of
how many turtles live in the area and what percentage of them get run over. Lead scientist Tom
Langen says, ironically, some of these turtles are older than the roads they’re getting killed on.
“It would be a terrible tragedy to remove these animals from our environment and over a brief
period of fifty years because of our traffic activities. I’d like to see those populations preserved
and maintained in good numbers. My daughter likes to see them, and I want her to see them as
Langen says his research could give road engineers a mandate to design fences, baffles, and
passageways that could keep turtles and other animals out of harm’s way. He cautions drivers to
be careful near wetlands, and if they see a dead turtle, odds are more turtles are trying to cross the
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Sommertein.
Research assistant Molly Wright on the trail for
radio-tagged turtles. (Photo by David Sommerstein)
Turtles like to live in wet, marshy areas. But they make their nests in dry areas, like in the gravel on the side of roads. Researchers are trying to determine how many turtles are becoming road kill and what effect that’s having on their populations. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:
Turtles like to live in wet, marshy areas. But they make their nests in dry areas, like in the gravel
on the side of roads. Researchers are trying to determine how many turtles are becoming roadkill
and what effect that’s having on their populations. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David
Biologist Tom Langen spends a lot of time walking along roads in northern New York State. A
professor at Clarkson University, he and his team of researchers catch turtles and put an
identifying tag on each one. So when they find one that’s been run over, they know who it is.
“…and by looking at the number that we find that are hit, and the number that are hit that have
been caught before, we can estimate the population size and what percentage are being hit.”
Langen says killing adult turtles has a big effect on the population because they reproduce for
decades. He says the project could persuade road engineers to build tunnels and other passages.
That way turtles and other animals will be able to cross the road and get to the other side safely.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Sommerstein.
Much of the debate over preventing the West Nile virus has focused on when and how to use pesticides to get rid of the mosquitoes that transmit the disease. But one community is trying another approach: increasing stocks of mosquito-eating fish. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lisa Phillips reports:
Much of the debate over preventing the West Nile virus has focused on when and how to use
pesticides to get rid of the mosquitoes that transmit the disease. But one community is trying
another approach – increasing stocks of mosquito-eating fish. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lisa Phillips reports:
When Greg Wier was a kid, he spent hours playing in the woods next to his family’s vegetable
farm in Guilderland, New York. He was too busy having fun to pay much attention to
“You got woods, you’re a kid. We had trails and forts and everything back here.”
Wier, who now has kids of his own, still lives on the family farm. But a lot has changed. The
woods have been replaced by a subdivision. The mosquitoes he once thought fairly harmless are
now potential carriers of the sometimes-deadly West Nile virus. Wier, the town highway
foreman, is the man in charge of Guilderland’s latest effort to combat the disease. He’s taking a
different approach: stocking ponds with fish that eat mosquito larvae. The effort started in the
subdivision’s drainage pond. On this hot afternoon, Wier watches a few sunfish and tadpoles dart
around the pond’s edge:
“I grew up here. I know this area quite well, and to see something like this happening naturally
instead of chemically is good for me.”
For the past four years, Wier has stocked the pond with several native fish species, including
pumpkin seed sunfish and golden shiner, a type of minnow. Both have a healthy appetite for
mosquito larvae. The town also puts bacterial larvicides, known as “dunks,” in smaller pools of
water, but there has been no pesticide spraying since the 1980’s. Ward Stone heads the Wildlife
Pathology Unit of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. He is a big
fan of the Guilderland approach, especially as evidence of West Nile mounts:
“We’re in high danger right now. We’ve had mosquitoes, we’ve had a wet summer. Predictions
are that the United States will have the most severe year for West Nile virus. We need to have a
vaccine and control. This is a little bit of that overall war that the town of Guilderland is waging
and doing it very soundly and ecologically.”
Using fish to fight mosquitoes is not a new idea. But using native fish is different from what’s
been done in the past. Michael Kaufman is an entomologist at Michigan State University. He
says gambusia, a non-native species known as “mosquito fish,” has been used in the American
West and parts of Asia.
“Lots of people, myself included, think it is an unwise idea to use them indiscriminately. There is
an issue with mosquito fish eating the eggs of native species or amphibians. They’ll eat frogs or
salamander eggs. That’s obviously a sensitive issue there, too.”
Guilderland has taken no official steps to research how well the program is working, though there
have been fewer complaints about mosquitoes in the neighborhood near the drainage pond. The
question is whether other communities should follow the town’s lead. Entomologist Michael
Kaufman says there are benefits to doing so – but there are also limits.
“Anything a community can do to reduce mosquitoes coming off any breeding site is a good
thing. The problem is, many mosquitoes don’t breed in ponds that are permanent. There are a
large number of mosquitoes that breed in smaller bodies of water, temporary ponds, very polluted
areas. Things like sewage lagoons.”
In other words, places mosquito-eating native fish are unlikely to thrive. Guilderland Highway
Foreman Greg Wier is well aware that his strategy is no magic bullet against West Nile virus. He
just sees it as one part of an effort everyone has to make.
“By a town taking care of a pond like this, we’re taking care of our own backyard. If everyone else
takes care of their own backyard, cleans the gutters, birdbaths, or empties a tire, that alone will
help control the mosquito population. If every house in the area does it that will be more of an
answer to West Nile virus, I believe.”
Because the fish program is so cheap to implement, Wier has already expanded it to a pond in a
new town park. If all goes well, in a few years there could be another benefit to Guilderland’s
mosquito prevention scheme: a place for anglers to go fishing – perhaps without having to cover
themselves with quite so much bug repellant.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Lisa Phillips.