Mosquitoes, Ticks, Rats, West Nile Virus, Zika and More: Independent District Has it Covered

Today we check in with Peter Bonkrude, District Manager of the Shasta Mosquito and Vector Control District, an independent special district that provides public health mosquito and vector control to 1,100 square miles of Shasta County. Peter grew up in Minnesota, Ohio, and Colorado where he graduated from the University of Colorado-Boulder with a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Biology. After moving to California, Peter attained his master’s degree in Entomology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and worked for a variety of research and vector-control agencies, including ISCA tech in Riverside, Calif., and the California Department of Public Health-Vector Borne Disease Section in Redding. In 2009, he accepted a position with the Shasta Mosquito and Vector Control District, where he has served for the last nine years. When not working, Peter enjoys spending time with his wife and two children, playing music, and traveling around the north state and beyond.

Peter Bonkrude

Peter, I know that this is a time of year when your District can catch its breath a little, so I thought we’d check in with you for a chat. Welcome to aNewsCafe.com! First, I was struck when I visited your website by the large geographical range that your office covers. How many people work in this department to take care of all that space, and what are they responsible for, generally speaking?

Hi Doni! I’m really excited about the Q&A. Regarding our District size; it’s true we cover 1,100 square miles, from Cottonwood to Castella and from French Gulch to Viola. It’s a large area, but utilizing software and scheduling we’re able to cover the whole area with 15 full-time employees including myself and between four to six “seasonal” employees that we hire to help during the busiest times (April-October). The 15 are split up with most in Field Operations-10, two in the lab and two on the administrative side. The field staff are the ones you’re most likely to encounter; they spend most of their time inspecting the over 13,000 potential mosquito breeding habitats we have mapped and using Integrated Vector Management (IVM) practices, they decide how best to control mosquitoes! Here is a helpful “infographic” that explains IVM, but at its most basic, we’re using the available data to decide if, when and how to best control vectors like mosquitoes.

How did this department come to be, and how did it get its name?

Our District has been around for a long time. We’ll be celebrating our 100-year birthday next year! We started in 1919 in response to malaria and several independent Districts were created, and over time they merged to form the Shasta Mosquito and Vector Control District as we are today. In addition to our District, Shasta County has two other independent special Districts that provide mosquito control: Burney Basin Mosquito Abatement District and Pine Grove Mosquito Abatement District. We all function under the guidance and authority of the California Health and Safety Code. Our name has changed a little bit over the years, but when we widened our focus beyond mosquitoes we finally settled on the Shasta Mosquito and Vector Control District.

I always wondered by mosquitoes were singled out, and vector was a category of critters. Why is that?

Mosquitoes have been historically singled out for two reasons: one, we’ve battled a series of public health diseases that are transmitted by mosquitoes (West Nile virus, Malaria, Western Equine encephalomyelitis, St. Louis encephalitis, Canine heartworm), and two, in large enough numbers mosquitoes can be a nuisance bordering on a public health threat. Everyone wants to be able to safely enjoy everything Shasta County has to offer, and we love playing a role in facilitating that enjoyment.

Of course, I know what a mosquito is, but I wasn’t entirely sure about vectors, except the first image that came to my mind was a rat. So before this Q&Q I looked up vectors on your website, where I learned that you define vectors as, “Any animal capable of transmitting human diseases or capable of producing human discomfort including, but not limited to, mosquitoes, flies, mites, ticks, rodents and other vertebrates.”

Can you expound on that list, specifically?

Sure, the term vector in our world is referring to an animal that can transmit a disease from one place to another. Our District provides control, surveillance, or consultation on the following; mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, rodents, and insects like conenose bugs, bed bugs or lice. Mosquitoes are the vector we focus most of our efforts on, but we do provide tick and tick-borne disease surveillance, plague and hanta virus surveillance and for the rest of the vectors’ consultation, identification and information.

So while we might be conditioned to avoid rats, for example, the truth is that we should probably steer clear of animals such as squirrels, too, because of the critters they carry on their bodies, right?

It’s true, I love to camp and hike and it’s really unfortunate how many people continue to feed wild animals; specifically, the cute and adorable chipmunks, ground squirrels and mice. These animals are wild and need to be able to forage and eat food appropriate for them. Encouraging these animals to come in contact with people only puts the animal and human at risk. Not to be a bummer, but take your pictures, enjoy their presence, but please don’t feed or handle the animals.

Duly noted.

What doesn’t the average Shasta County person know about the world of vectors among us? I know you don’t want to cause a panic, but are there some critters that we’re not taking seriously, but should?

That’s a hard question. I think the reality is we are still struggling, even after 100 years, to take mosquitoes seriously. We were able to get some good information out during times when the media was interested, like the initial West Nile virus and Zika outbreaks, but when interest wanes I think a misconception exists that the problem goes away. We are working with largely preventable diseases, and if people could just take some simple steps like fixing their screens or wearing an effective repellent we could see our human case numbers sit at zero every year. When you meet someone impacted by a mosquito-borne disease like West Nile virus, the detrimental impact on their lives is enormous. We want to work with our community to protect people from those impacts. To answer the question in more depth, I think the critter or disease we aren’t taking seriously is the one we don’t know about yet. During the Zika outbreaks, an effort to identify the capacity of the U.S. to respond to new and emerging diseases was made and the results were not encouraging. We need to focus more on building infrastructure for local vector control, surveillance and research so that we can be prepared for whatever might be heading our way. I will note that California in general scored pretty well, which highlights the ongoing support we’ve received throughout the years.

Indulge me for a moment with this rat question for a moment. Is it true that Redding is seeing an explosion – maybe that’s the wrong word – increase in its rat population? I know that speaking personally, the 80-year-old house I bought last year was infested with rats, and I’ve heard from neighbors stories about a rat problem. Is this purely anecdotal, or is there any truth to the sense that Redding has a rat problem?

I always indulge any rat question … they are very interesting animals! It would be hard to truly quantify whether we are seeing an increase in the population without ongoing and historic surveillance for rats, so it’s likely anecdotal. In our area we largely see the roof rat, and they can be a challenge to completely control because they often move between buildings and yards. For most people, one live rat in their home or yard is too many. We encourage people interested in getting rid of rats to focus on exclusion, that is trying to keep them out. Inspecting your residence for gaps on doors, roof eaves, gaps around pipes…. anything larger than a ¼ inch can allow a rat or mouse full access to the warm, safe and likely food-laden habitat you’ve established for your own comfort. Also trimming your trees away from the roof, will help reduce the traffic and access to your attic space. In general, we discourage live trapping, rodenticides and glue board in homes. The rodenticides could leave you with a stinkier problem then you started with (trying to find a dead rat in your wall void or attic), and the glue boards could increase your risk from disease because the boards can leave the animals alive for a pretty long time. The safest bet is still the old “snap” traps as they are effective and now are even being sold with full enclosures if you aren’t interested in looking at the rat before disposal. For tricky rats, I like to bait my traps for a few nights without setting the trigger to allow them to get used to it in their environment. After they start consistently taking the bait, go ahead and set the trap, you’re capture rate should go up!

You have no idea how much I hate that 1/4-inch number regarding the size of an opening a rat can squeeze through. But thanks for the reminder. I have done a lot of what you recommend, such as cutting trees and scrubs away from the house and garage to make it more difficult for them to make the leap. And you have information about the distance a rat can leap, we can save that information for another day.

Rats aside, a lot of what your department does is collect data, and part of collecting data includes collecting and testing ticks and mosquitoes. How do you do that, exactly, and how are things looking for 2018 with regard to ticks and mosquitoes?

My favorite subject: data! I get excited about the power of data, and these days we’re getting more and more tools to not only collect data but help us understand large datasets in ways we couldn’t before. For our mosquitoes we set traps –a lot of different traps — aimed at different species (we have at least 26 mosquito species in our District!) and different life stages. On average we set 60+ traps throughout the District every week. This tells us where we are experiencing mosquito abundance problems and allows us to test those mosquitoes for diseases that might impact people. For ticks, we utilize “flags” which are simply felt attached to a metal handle. The technicians then brush the fabric against the grasses, and collect, count and identify the ticks found on the fabric. We also have the ticks tested for disease. Regarding the question, “how are things looking?” it’s always hard to assess year to year comparisons, but we are seeing a slight decline in mosquito populations (species dependent) and a slight increase in our ticks collected. If you are really interested our website has a lot of the information posted and regularly updated.

Actually, I got the idea of doing a Q&A with you after you responded to something I’d written about ticks on aNewsCafe.com; that I’d seen guys from your department in trucks dragging white flags along the grasses. I’ll tell you that once I learned that they were basically capturing ticks, it made me much more careful about not letting grasses brush my legs when I walk on trails.

We can move on from ticks now.

I was surprised to learn that your department is involved in some post-Carr Fire tasks. Can you tell us more about that?

As you know, and many have written on anewscafe, the Carr Fire affected our community in so many, sometimes surprising ways and our District is no exception. Obviously, the immediate impact of the fire restricted our surveillance and control activities, but once the fire was contained we knew the environment would be left changed, and new mosquito sources would be created that could cause additional public health risks for the foreseeable future. We reached out to Marin-Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District to get guidance based on their experience post the Tubbs Fire, and set to work as soon as our staff were allowed to access the burned areas. Most of our efforts are focused on man-made structures that will now go unmaintained for a long period of time; things like swimming pools, ornamental ponds, exposed septic systems…basically anything that can collect and hold water. We set about mapping, inspecting and treating anything that had the potential to breed mosquitoes and will continue in that regard until these properties move closer to becoming rebuilt. Our initial inspections show that we added over 200 new mosquito breeding habitats, not including any new “natural” sources that will become apparent with winter precipitation. Time will tell how the fires will impact our surveillance and control efforts moving forward, but hopefully we’ve positioned ourselves to be ready.

There are some impressive 21st-century changes at the Shasta County Mosquito and Vector Control office these days, I hear. Go ahead and brag.

Finally some time to brag! Thanks, Doni, because we are a relatively small organization tasked with supporting such a large area we are always focused on the efficiency that technology can bring to augment our operation and surveillance work. A few of the new things that are here or just around the corner are our remote surveillance traps, our newly expanded and remodeled lab, integrating drone technology into our programs and finding new ways to collect, analyze and communicate our data to staff and the public. In addition to these technical improvements we have been really pushing to increase our presence in the public outreach field! I’ll touch briefly on these items and add some pictures as they’re likely more interesting.

To start, we cut the ribbon on our newly expanded and remodeled lab. As you pointed out earlier a lot of what we do is surveillance and our old space was too small to support our current operations or provide for any expansion in the future. Now we have a space that will allow us to expand our research, investigate providing more in-house diagnostic services and prepare ourselves for anything to come our way in the future.

As part of the Zika response, we were able to purchase new traps that are specific to the species of mosquitoes that can transmit Zika, Chikungunya, and Dengue. One of these traps can collect, count and report mosquito population numbers in real time. This gives our staff detailed information about mosquito activity periods that can improve our control efficacy (plus it’s pretty neat).

Speaking of neat…. drones or remote piloted aircraft (RPAs) seem to have captured the imagination of everyone out there; our industry is no different! Last year we helped to pass legislation that would allow vector agencies to conduct control applications from an RPA. As we look at how to implement this legislation with the powers that be, we continue to add to a list of useful functions this technology would serve: reduce environmental disturbance, provide better access for wetland surveillance and control, allow for more targeted larval applications and increase our efficiency.

Lastly, we doubled down on our outreach and public education. We update our website with a new mobile friendly platform and links to a ton of interesting information, added several new speaking engagements and booth manning events, produced and aired new audio and video PSAs and will be rolling out our new kids’ activity book at the end of this year. It’s been a busy year, but we always try to be available if people want us to come talk about mosquitoes, ticks and other vectors.

I hear you have a new mascot.

Ha! Our new mascot, she’s become pretty popular already … we’ve started to get calls asking for Missy Keeto specifically. Well Missy flew into the District one day and offered to help create our SWAT team, and when a 6 ½ ft tall mosquito asks to do anything, you’d better listen. Our SWAT team’s mission is to help get rid of mosquitoes wherever they can, and Missy is helping the community know how to accomplish that goal. So Doni, Missy is always looking for new recruits … if you’re interested, we’ll send you a badge to deputize your efforts.

Is there something else you’d like to add that we’ve missed?

Thank you so much for the time Doni, the only thing I’d like to add is a huge thanks to everyone at the District, we are small but mighty team and if the community could know how hard they work to keep them safe from vector-borne diseases I could retire a happy man. Also, a big thanks to our Board for providing direction, guidance, oversight and support and finally a thank you to the community for continuing to support our mission, asking good questions and letting us serve them for almost 100 years!


Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments