By Phil Brown
Blackflies are not known for keeping their social distance, but if the Adirondack Park welcomes tourists again this spring, visitors will be happy to know that local towns are working to keep the buggers at bay.
Seventeen towns in the Adirondack Park have state-issued permits this year to apply the pesticide Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti) to streams where blackflies breed to kill the larvae.
All of the towns that responded to the Explorer’s inquiries (nine, as of Wednesday) are going ahead with their Bti programs despite the coronavirus crisis, which has shut down businesses and sharply curtailed Adirondack tourism.
This is good news for hikers, paddlers and others who may be visiting the region in the spring or early summer. Typically, the tiny, biting insects are at their worst from late May to early July.
It’s also good news for local residents, who must contend with the pests not only on the trail, but also in their backyards.
“Blackfly control benefits residents as well as visitors, so to me, it’s worth it,” Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson said. “I remember trying to work outdoors in early summer in the days before Bti. I don’t want to go back to that.”
Keene, home to many of the High Peaks, budgeted $28,000 for blackfly control this year, Wilson said.
Heather VanDenburgh, supervisor of Stratford in the southern Adirondacks, concurred with Wilson. “Our trails and state lands are still open to the public for hiking and other recreational activities if people in the surrounding area choose to enjoy them,” she said. “With school being out, children should be able to play in their own backyards and woods comfortably without the bother of blackflies.
“The great outdoors is a wonderful way to maintain social distancing while still being able to leave your home, and I wouldn’t want to take away that option.”
Bti is a soil-dwelling bacterium first discovered in Israel in 1976. It kills the larvae of mosquitoes as well as those of blackflies. It is used throughout the world, often to suppress disease-carrying mosquito populations.
Studies have shown that Bti is not toxic—or only mildly so—to fish, birds and other wildlife. Likewise, humans are not harmed by the bacterium. However, some evidence suggests that repeated applications to kill mosquitoes can affect the food web.
“Present use against black flies seems ecologically acceptable,” one study concluded. “High frequencies of application and/or overdosages against mosquitoes may result in some persistence of the toxin crystals and ultimately this may have adverse effects on the food web.”
Besides Keene and Stratford, the Adirondack towns with permits to use Bti this year are Arietta, Benson, Black Brook, Caroga, Chester, Indian Lake, Inlet, Jay, Lake Pleasant, Morehouse, Newcomb, North Elba, North Hudson, Wells and Wilmington.
To minimize the spread of the covid-19 virus, DEC is encouraging people to recreate locally and avoid crowded trails. The department also has closed Adirondack fire towers.
Wilmington Supervisor Roy Holzer said he can’t predict what the tourist season will be like, but he wants the town to be ready. “Now more than ever we want to do things that make being outside more beneficial to both our locals and visitors,” he said.