Agency Sacks General in War on Fire Ants

Times Staff Writer

Orange County’s lead official in the effort to eliminate the pesky fire ant -- a gung-ho former Marine who contended that victory was within sight -- has been terminated by the county’s vector control agency.

County officials said Richard Bowen’s departure is part of a reorganization “efficiency measure.” Bowen, though, said he believes he was a victim of his own successes.

Bowen, 48, has been the face the Orange County Fire Ant Authority since 2000, a brash, highly quotable man who vowed Orange County would buck the trend by eradicating the fire ant rather than simply containing the pest, a strategy employed by other regions.


He helped develop a golf-cart-like assault vehicle, entertained visitors from other regions and countries who wanted to study his strategies and dreamed up a line of attack in which potato chips were used to lure and capture the ants.

Alan Burns, an attorney for the Orange County Vector Control District, said Bowen was let go because his “services were no longer necessary.” He said Bowen’s departure had nothing to do with his job performance.

In a memo to Bowen from Robert D. Sjogren, the district’s manager and Bowen’s boss, the job action was described as a result of a reorganization that eliminated his position.

“In fact, you provided valuable services to the district in establishing the fire ant program,” Sjogren wrote in an April 16 memo.

Bowen said he was terminated because he wanted to downsize the county’s fire ant program, a move made possible because of the advances he made in eliminating the fire ants. He said that suggestion rubbed his bosses the wrong way.

Cutting back on the fire ant program would have meant a reduction in funding for the county’s vector control agency, said Bowen, who disputes whether Sjogren had the authority to get rid of him without a vote by the district’s board of trustees.

Burns said trustees voted on the job action as a non-agenda item when they met Thursday.

Orange County’s program has been heralded as one of the few successful efforts in the assault on fire ants, including by federal officials who had said eliminating the pests might be impossible, said Michael Hearst, a vector district spokesman.

“That’s all due to the program’s success,” Hearst said.

Hearst said that of the 27,000 sites treated, almost half are proving to be ant-free. However, the county still has two infestations in the north and south, with the central area relatively free of the insects.

Since 1999, state and federal officials stepped in to quarantine Orange County in hopes of curbing the spread of red fire ants, because they said the infestation was worse than first thought.

It marked the first time California had declared a quarantine to fight the swarming, stinging insects. Fire ants have long infested 11 Southeastern states but came to the public’s attention only in late 1997, when the insect arrived on nursery stock and beehives from the South.

As program manager, Bowen launched the county’s attack plan from scratch. The former officer-in-charge at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Facility rented offices, hired employees, bought trucks and equipment while helping create public awareness and education campaigns.

The quarantine remains in effect for nurseries, Hearst said. Any container leaving an Orange County nursery has to be treated and the nursery baited every 90 days while surveys are taken to ensure there are no ants on the property.