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.

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