Rural Utah braces for a latter-day plague

These crickets and hoppers eat anything in front of them

  • California gulls gather to gorge in Skull Valley, Utah

    Larry Warren photo
  • An adult female Mormon cricket

    Chuck MacVean photo/Gillette Entomology Club
 

The story is legendary in Utah: In 1848, as starving Mormon pioneers were about to harvest their first full year's crops in the dusty Salt Lake Valley, hordes of grasshoppers marched through the fields, devouring every living thing.

Just when all appeared lost, great flocks of seagulls arrived, noisily settled into the half-eaten fields, and began feasting on the grasshoppers. All day they gorged, regurgitated, and gorged again. The crops were saved. The California gull is now the Utah state bird and its saving flight is commemorated in a statue on the Mormon Church's Temple Square.

The hated grasshoppers became popularly known as Mormon crickets, and this summer they're back. Last year, Mormon crickets infested more than a half million acres of Utah land. This summer's infestation is expected to be worse.

"In a field of alfalfa, the population can be so high all you can see is black," says Utah state entomologist Ed Bianco. "You'd have a hard time seeing anything green."

Paved roads covered with smashed crickets can become so slick that cars slide off. Cricket swarms passing over dirt roads leave their mark behind - two red gut stripes where tires rolled over the insects.

Last summer, some enterprising Utah farmers hoped to save their crops by putting turkeys out to eat approaching Mormon crickets. The crickets ate the feathers off the turkeys. In some rural communities in Tooele County west of Salt Lake City, houses were covered with crickets, forcing residents to stay indoors.

"They'll eat most anything in front of them," Bianco says, calling this summer's infestation the worst since the early 1980s.

Swarm upon swarm

And there's more than Mormon crickets out there.

Coupled with the Mormon cricket march, other grasshopper populations are also exploding in the desert valleys west of Salt Lake.

"They ate the stucco off my neighbor's house," Karrie Palmer of Tooele says. "Last year, they covered the house and ate anything that was green. They ate the garden, all the leaves off the trees, and even the lawn. If you'd step on the lawn, it would just move. We were afraid to go out."

In Skull Valley in west-central Utah, grasshoppers have already wiped out ranchers' alfalfa fields.

"During the last hopper infestation in 1985, I got 10 tons of hay out of a field where I normally get 300 tons," rancher Dennis Andrus says.

His Skull Valley neighbor, Rita Evans, says grasshoppers ate her 40 acres of alfalfa "... right down to the dirt."

Utah ranchers and farmers can spread bait for the crickets, poisoning grain in a line ahead of the approaching swarm, but say they also need aerial spraying to keep the grasshoppers at bay. Since both insects lay their eggs on the vast tracts of public lands which border each irrigated valley, ranchers want the federal government to poison the insects on its land. According to entomologist Ed Bianco at the Utah Department of Agriculture, the poison has not had any effect on other wildlife, including the California gulls.

"The source is Forest Service land," Utah State University Extension agent Justen Smith explains. "By the time they get to the private crop lands, it's too late. Baiting should have started in April on the forest land."

Utah's congressional delegation is seeking emergency federal funding to get aerial spraying and ground baiting programs under way, but it's probably too late. While Utah's state Department of Agriculture is kicking in emergency funds to help ranchers buy cricket bait, little can be done about the other grasshoppers.

But maybe history is repeating itself. In late May, with grasshoppers hatching and Mormon crickets just miles away, Dennis and Shirley Andrus' ranch came alive with the screech and squawk of thousands of seagulls. They settled so thickly on the Andrus' pond there was no more room for them to land.

"It's really amazing," Andrus marvels. "There'll be a big group of them circling high in the sky round and round and then after awhile they'll come in and another flock will go out, back and forth, back and forth."

"Back then, the Lord sent the birds," neighbor Rita Evans recalls of the 1848 seagull rescue, "and I think He did it again."

While Tooele County agent Justen Smith is grateful for the unexpected help, he still pleads for emergency federal funding.

"We can't depend on the seagulls," he says. Rancher Andrus agrees. "Nature sent the Air Force all right, but now we need money for our own airplanes."

Larry Warren reports on the environment for KUTV News in Salt Lake City.

You can contact ...

* The USDA's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, Greg Abbott, 435/896-4772;

* Utah's Department of Agriculture, Larry Lewis, 801/538-7104.

High Country News Classifieds
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.