HINTON, W.Va. — For one resident along the New River, a hiatus from black fly spraying is nothing short of a victory, albeit a small one.
James Earl “Squirrel” Wood has lived along the river more than 50 years, and for nearly 30 of those years, he’s been keeping records of birds, bats, snakes, fish and black fly hatches, as well as other insects in the river and out.
In stacks of wire notebooks and repurposed folders, Wood has catalogued his daily observations of life along a 2-mile stretch of the New. According to his records, he’s seen a decline in all life forms which populated the river 50 years ago. Since spraying began in 1986, all he’s wanted is a study on the effects of Bti, the biological pesticide flung from helicopters fairly regularly during the spring and summer to kill black fly larvae.
He also has hundreds of discs full of hundreds of pictures that document what he’s seen, and, maybe more importantly, what he hasn’t seen, along the New River.
Wood said suppressing the black flies is taking a link out of a fragile food chain that has diminished the fish and bird population. An avid outdoorsman, Wood has fished the river almost constantly, and in an area that used to deliver up to 55 bass in a morning, he now nets fewer than 10. And catfish are non-existent there, according to Wood.
“You can’t catch a catfish,” he said. “It’s upset everything.”
Wood said the migrating purple martin, a sub-species of the swallow, is an indicator something is wrong on the New River. Wood has 11 bird houses for purple martins, which once hatched two nests of young each summer.
“Now they hatch once a year,” he said. “They feed on black flies.”
The former railroad engineer for C&O said black flies don’t bite people, nor do they invade a person’s eyes and ears. That’s the bailiwick of gnats, an insect different than the black fly.
With a tube of the spring’s first and only hatch of black flies on his dining room table, Wood explains that gnats are gray, not black. Birds along the river would take care of any black flies that escaped the water, he said.
His friend and fellow riverside dweller Richard Bradford agreed.
“God took care of it His way,” Bradford said.
Bradford is convinced that Bti (Bacillus thuringiensis serovar israelensis), a toxic bacteria used as a biological control for certain insect larvae, is also damaging the people who populate the New River’s banks…