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IWAKUNI MARINE CORPS AIR STATION, Japan — In Iwakuni’s four-year war against black widow spiders, the humans finally may be pulling ahead — but with base commander Col. David Darrah ordering a zero-tolerance policy, V-Day isn’t here yet, base officials warn.

“Just the other day the colonel … said that our goal here is not to control the black widow spiders; our goal is the total eradication of them,” said Capt. Stewart Upton, base spokesman.

Base officials plan to launch a re-education campaign this spring via television, radio and print to alert residents and Japanese employees about the spiders, Upton said.

Iwakuni’s battle with the hairy, 1.5-inch arachnids began in August 2000, when Iwakuni pest control employees found the spiders in the housing areas and other locations where large numbers of people gather — including along the flight line and in work buildings. In the past three years, according to an earlier Stars and Stripes report, large numbers of spiders also were found at the Torii Pines Golf Course, the surrounding buildings, and at the Northside Housing Sector.

Not all of the creatures are a threat. Males and juveniles are harmless; only females, who have a distinctive red hourglass marking, are poisonous. They tend to bite only when disturbed — and because they prefer weaving webs in dark, out-of-the-way, cramped spaces — such as under street drainage grids and in pipes and scrap piles — humans often have to go out of their way to disturb them. Even among people bitten by a female, the poison kills just 1 percent.

The bad news: That distinctive hourglass marking is on the female’s underbelly, meaning you may have to get up close and personal to spot it. And black widow spiders breed in the fall, creating population surges every winter.

Iwakuni officials know such things because during the past three years, the base has brought in entomologists familiar with the spiders’ habitats and instincts to conduct basewide surveys and develop extermination battle plans.

Perhaps inevitably, some of the base’s pest control technicians have become expert black widow hunters, which they know because they’ve apparently kept track of every spider — mom, pop and junior — they’ve sent to the great web in the sky.

That’s what lets Iwakuni officials contend they’re winning the spider wars: Each year since the black widows first were spotted, spider hunters report finding and bagging far fewer of them.

In 2001, the first full year of inspections and exterminations, base employees found 6,168 black widow spiders; in 2002, 4,525; in 2003, 1,958. And so far in 2004, they’ve found just 154.

That also just could mean the spiders are getting wilier about avoiding the spider hunters. But base officials are taking it as a clear sign of progress. As of Tuesday, Upton said, pest control technicians have hunted down and snuffed out 13,784 of the notorious arachnids: 245 males, 2,175 females and 10,392 juveniles.

And not even one black widow spider has been reported beyond Iwakuni’s boundaries, which the base’s neighbors have signalled is fine with them. Local Japanese government employees, Upton said, “walk the fence line on a daily basis, always looking for the presence of the spiders off base.” The base also periodically updates Iwakuni City and Yamaguchi Prefecture officials on its spider war progress, he said.

Officials did not, however, venture an estimate of how many spiders still may call Iwakuni home, sweet web. Nor do they know for sure how the creatures not native to Japan first spun their way to the base, although shortly after they were found, entomologist Akira Masui from Yokosuka Naval Base confirmed they’re southwestern black widows, found in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Investigators said they suspect the desert arachnids hitched rides on commercial trucks bringing building supplies from the American southwest.

Even that so many of them have evaded the spider hunters for four years has an up side, base officials indicated: The Navy Branch Medical Clinic keeps a more-than-adequate supply of anti-venom on hand.

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