BISMARCK, N.D. - An Ohio Air Force Reserve unit charged with controlling mosquitoes during wartime is using bug-bitten North Dakota as a practice ground again this summer.
Huge gray military airplanes flying as low as 100 feet from the ground sprayed Minot and, for the first time, Williston to kill mosquito larvae this spring. Another mission aimed at adult mosquitoes, which can carry diseases such as West Nile virus, is planned for later this month.
The Air Force's aerial spray unit based at Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna, Ohio, has found North Dakota an ideal place for practice because of its large mosquito population, said its chief entomologist, Mark Breidenbaugh.
"North Dakota is probably a lifetime customer," he said.
In Williston, a northwest North Dakota town of 13,000 near the Little Muddy and Missouri rivers, flooding has not helped. Rocky Mountain snowmelt swells the Missouri River, overflowing its banks in the spring and creating thousands of acres of standing water ideal for mosquito breeding.
Last summer was one of the worst for mosquitoes, said Steve Kemp, a member of the Williston mosquito control board.
"Swarms of them would chase you to your car, like a scene from a sci-fi horror movie," he said. "It was a terrible existence."
Breidenbaugh, who has traveled the world studying insects, said Williston's mosquito problem is as bad as he's seen.
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"I didn't want to tell the mayor that because I just didn't want to depress him," he said.
Residents voted in November to pay more money for bug control to help bring the C-130 planes from Ohio, Williston Mayor Ward Koeser said. The city's $200,000 mosquito extermination effort comes from a $4 monthly fee on residents' water bills and state and federal funds.
The Air Force Reserve unit began spraying for mosquitoes in North Dakota in 2001 at the Grand Forks Air Force Base and the city of Grand Forks. It is not spraying there this year because spring flooding helped curb the mosquito population.
In warmer climates, flooding can create mosquito problems, but spring flooding in eastern North Dakota flushes mosquito larvae to cooler ground, inhibiting hatches, said Todd Hanson, mosquito control supervisor for the Grand Forks Health Department. Mosquito numbers also were down after the 1997 Red River flood, he said.
Minot, in northwest North Dakota, spends about $8,000 for each mosquito-bombing mission over it. Dan Jonasson, assistant director of public works, said residents are relieved when they see the military aircraft fly over at nearly 250 mph.
"It's a good bang for the buck," he said. "We notice it quite a bit after they spray. It's a huge improvement."
Breidenbaugh said the aerial spraying that usually begins about two hours before sunset can reduce mosquito populations "up to 99 percent on a given night."
"Unfortunately, it's a temporary measure," he said. "They can't all be eliminated. The fallen are replaced."
But Koeser said he's hopeful the military can help Williston control the pests. Residents have talked previously about huge fans to blow the bugs away, encasing the town in a bubble, or building carbon dioxide-emitting power plant to draw the bugs away from the city.
"I don't think we'll ever get rid of our mosquito problem, but hopefully, with the help of Mother Nature and the Air Force, we'll be able to manage it," Koeser said.