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Casualty Reports from the Fire Ant Front

A very wise man (actually, a colleague from Texas) told me last year that Orange County could forget about eradicating fire ants. He said it in a condescending way, because he’s from Texas, where ants have thrived for years, and because I’d just come back from interviewing the confident new head of the county’s anti-ant brigade.

“You can’t kill those things,” my colleague said, laughing.

My response was something like, “Oh, yeah?”

You can’t blame me, then, for being a little chagrined to read over the weekend that some in the local authority had acknowledged what a tough critter the ant turned out to be in the first year of open warfare.

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That prompted my first call to Richard Bowen, the former Marine in charge of the county’s fire ant program, since our interview in May.

“You know why I’m calling,” I said. “Are you surrendering?”

“Absolutely not,” Bowen fired back, in that tone of voice that Marines have mastered. “I’m not discouraged; I’m encouraged.”

Bowen is an engaging guy to talk to, because he seems equal parts Marine Corps brass and class cutup.

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He told me last year that he had sold himself to the county as a leader. Besides, the ants were cunning and organized like an opposing force. “What more logical person to hire than a former Marine?” he told me.

To convince me this week he hadn’t been overmatched, Bowen threw out some figures.

I know enough to be skeptical of casualty figures from a military man, but what do I know about ants?

“Our protocol requires us to treat the mounds for one year, once they’re discovered,” Bowen said. “We just passed our first year in existence, and there are 272 mounds that have been treated. Only two mounds [with ants] are left. When you’ve only got two out of 272 . . . that’s pretty good numbers. All my technicians are superexcited.”

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The one-year treatments call for four separate attacks on the ants--one every 90 days. Even after the fourth attack, the plan calls for the ant fighters to leave actual bait at the site. If no ants show up, victory is declared over that mound.

Surrender? Nuts!

Bowen is not saying that his people have found every mound in Orange County.

But the bottom line, mister, is that Bowen isn’t conceding anything to the ants.

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“I’m going down to Texas tomorrow, where the enemy is, for the annual fire ant conference,” he said. “I’m going to give a PowerPoint presentation to all the naysayers, PhDs and guys with pointy heads. I’m going to knock them dead.”

Bowen reminded me that the Orange County effort is a five-year plan. “I am as confident as I ever was, based on the commitment from everyone involved,” he said. “That sounds like a political statement, but it’s not. I need total commitment.”

So far, he said, he’s gotten it--from the state, the county supervisors and his departmental bosses. A scientific advisory panel “made up of some real smart guys says ‘Don’t give up in California,’ ” Bowen said.

When we first met last May, Bowen was getting up to speed. He made no pretense of being a fire ant expert, nor does he now.

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His job is to lead and motivate the troops. In that regard, he said, he’s pleased.

“We just recently had one employee who had to take a leave,” Bowen said. “Other than that, everyone brought on board is still here.”

In other words, the team is still in place. The enemy is still out there, but it knows it’s in a fight to the death and may have acted accordingly. Bowen said some of his people think the ants may be cleverly storing the bait instead of eating it.

“We have one more unknown,” Bowen said. “We don’t know how this ant is going to behave come spring, when it warms up and the rains stop.”

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In the weekend story, a Texas researcher expressed doubt that the ants can ever be eradicated.

He obviously doesn’t know what I had to relearn this week: Never say “surrender” to a Marine.

Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times’ Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com.


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