This spring will be Robert Brand’s last at fighting mosquitoes, something he’s been doing since Richard Nixon was sworn in as president and The Brady Bunch came on the air.
But for the man who pioneered how the mosquito population is kept at bay in Tooele County, it’s time to pass the torch — and that’s OK.
“You finish your career and you pass the baton to someone else and let them finish the race,” said Brand, 65.
Brand will retire at the end of either May or June — he hasn’t decided which — after 37 years as the premier director of the Tooele County Mosquito Abatement District. In all he’s spent 45 years in the mosquito-killing business.
His introduction to the field began in 1969 as a summer job with the South Salt Lake Mosquito Abatement District while he studied music theory at Brigham Young University and worked as a part-time custodian for the Midvale City Library. As he drew close to graduation, he married his wife, Sharon, and decided to buy her a ring instead of paying tuition for his last class.
While music has been his passion since he was 10, Brand said he realized that beyond teaching or professional performance — neither of which he particularly wanted to do — his career options were limited. So he enrolled in a drafting program at Salt Lake Community College, still working at the library while fighting mosquitos in the summer, until 1977.
That year his boss at the district told him about a new mosquito abatement district that had just formed in Tooele County.
“I said, ‘I can’t manage a district,’ and he said, ‘You can as well as anybody else,’” said Brand. “So I applied. Once I got the job here, it seemed superfluous to go back to school.”
But even as a two-time college dropout, Brand said he quickly found out the skills and education he had were just what the job needed. He had had enough of drafting schooling to be able to effectively start mapping the spring sources, important for finding larvae before they flowed down to larger ponds.
“You get an education, you learn from it and you apply that to your job,” he said. “I think I accomplished that.”
Which is not to say the job was easy. In the beginning, the district had no supplies, and a budget of just $13,000 — Brand himself was only hired on temporarily, requiring him to work in Tooele by day and commute to Midvale for his library job by night. The workload, too, was immense for Brand and the four workers hired temporarily or borrowed from Tooele County.
“You could take a 22-ounce dipper and dip it in a pond and when you’d pull it up you’d find a thousand mosquito larvae,” he said. “You’d find that everywhere you go from Stansbury to Grantsville. We borrowed and begged from other districts to get pesticides and we’d spray by hand.”
Bite counts, with volunteers — or Brand himself — counting the number of mosquitos that landed on their arms while they stood near the Stansbury Park Observatory, showed equally grim numbers for the adult population. Some counts reached nearly 1,000 as well.
Brand said the Magna, Salt Lake and South Salt Lake Mosquito Abatement Districts were immensely helpful in the beginning, lending out equipment and passing along leftover pesticide. There was no office space for the district, either, so Brand ran it out of his Grantsville home.
“The trucks were at the house and the guys would come back all muddy,” recalls Sharon Brand.
Besides the district being brand new, Brand said the science and procedure of culling the mosquito population was relatively young.
“There were lots of discoveries in those days,” he said. “It was hard because people hear there’s a mosquito abatement district and they expect there to be fewer mosquitos. There was not much I could do about it that early in the district’s life.”
The job was personal to Brand, too.
“If people had a mosquito problem, I felt like I messed up,” he said. “I don’t feel like that anymore. There’s nothing you can do. They’re not mad at you. They’re frustrated because nobody likes to be bit.”
It took until 1978 for Brand to track down all of the spring sources, which is vital information because spraying a young population in a pond has an 80 or 90 percent kill rate, while trying to track adults in the air has less than 50 percent of success. Chemical pesticides were sprayed by hand. Today, workers spray ponds with a type of bacteria known as BTI, which kills mosquito eggs, the eggs of a few flies, but nothing else.
“It’s environmentally safer than what we were using back in the old days with the really toxic stuff,” he said.
Brand said the documentation needed for every operation, because even the specialized bacteria is considered a pollutant, has grown tremendously.
In 1982, amidst fears of diseased mosquitoes, the district first got sentinel chickens, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“There was a lot of potential for disease,” said Brand. “We didn’t know about West Nile Virus — that didn’t come until ‘99. In ‘82, we were concerned about encephalitis.”
The flock is used as one of two parts of determining whether or not diseases, such as encephalitis or West Nile Virus, are in an area. Pools of mosquito larvae are tested to see if the disease is present, while the results from the blood of chickens determine whether a disease is being transmitted.
“Chickens will pick it up, but they’re not susceptible, so you can keep them out there,” he said.
Brand said he feels that West Nile Virus has changed the landscape of mosquito abatement, as has the increase of federal regulation and required record-keeping. On the other hand, technology has made some aspects of the job easier and more effective — using ATVs to spray, a five-man crew can cover exponentially more ground than the same size of force spraying by hand in 1977. Brand said he doesn’t believe the heart of the mission will ever change.
“The focus is still to try to contain mosquitoes at the source. That will always be the focus,” he said. “I can’t fathom they’re ever going to discontinue that.”
Although he has been the guiding force behind the district for more than three decades, Brand said he feels the organization will have a strong future under its next director, Scott Bradshaw, who has experience with mosquito abatement in Box Elder County.
“He’s got good credentials. It’s going to be a good fit. He’s going to bring us into the 21st Century,” said Brand. “I’m still a pencil and paper kind of guy. I’m a dinosaur and that’s all right.”
Though he’s looking forward to working on his yard and an orchard he’s nurturing, Brand said he doesn’t expect to ever be able to fully leave his career behind. Past employees have told him that after only working in the field a season or two, they can’t help but wonder if there are mosquitoes in a pond of standing water they happen to see, he said.
“I don’t think that will ever leave,” he said. “You’ve got to be a little crazy to do what we’re doing. I’ve been in some areas where you’re just covered. But somebody’s got to do it.”