‘Biblical’ bug swarms spur Oregon to fight pests

ARLINGTON, Oregon (AP) — Jordan Maley and April Aamodt drive down a windy canyon road in northern Oregon in search of Mormon crickets, giant insects that can destroy crops.

“There is one,” Aamodt says.

They are not difficult to spot. The insects, which can grow larger than 5 centimeters, dab the asphalt.

Mormon crickets are not new to Oregon. Native to western North America, their name dates back to the 1800s, when they ravaged the fields of Mormon settlers in Utah. But amid drought and rising temperatures — conditions that favor the insects — outbreaks in the West have worsened.

The Oregon legislature allocated $5 million last year to assess the problem and set up a Mormon cricket and locust suppression program. Earlier this month, an additional $1.2 million was approved for the program.

It’s part of a larger effort by state and federal authorities in the western US to deal with an explosion of locusts and Mormon crickets that has struck from Montana to Nevada. But some environmental groups oppose the programs, which rely on aerial spraying of pesticides over large areas of the country.

Maley, an Oregon State University Extension Agent, and Aamodt, a resident of the small Columbia River town of Arlington, are both involved in Mormon cricket outreach and surveying efforts in the area.

In 2017, Arlington saw its biggest Mormon cricket outbreak since the 1940s. The roads were “greasy” with the squashed guts of the huge insects, which damaged nearby wheat crops.

Rancher Skye Krebs said the outbreaks were “truly biblical.”

“On the highways, once you kill them, the rest will come,” he explained. Mormon crickets are cannibalistic and feast on each other, dead or alive, if not saturated with protein.

The insects, which are not true crickets but shield-backed katydids, cannot fly. But they can travel at least a quarter of a mile a day, according to Maley.

Aamodt fought the 2017 outbreak with what she had on hand.

“I got the lawnmower out and started mowing and killing them,” she said. “I took a straight hoe and I would stab them.”

Aamodt has organized volunteers to deal with the plague and earned the nickname “cricket queen.”

Another plague last year caused local officials to “clamber,” Maley said.

“We had all those high-value crops and irrigation rings,” he explained. “We just had to do what we could to keep them from getting into that.”

In 2021 alone, Oregon agriculture officials estimate that 10 million acres of pastureland in 18 counties have been damaged by locusts and Mormon crickets.

Under the new Oregon initiative, private landowners such as ranchers and ranchers can request the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) to survey their land. If ODA finds more than three Mormon crickets or eight grasshoppers per square foot, it will recommend chemical treatment. In some areas near Arlington surveyed in May, there were 201 Mormon crickets per square foot shortly after hatching.

State officials recommend aerial application of diflubenzuron. The insecticide works by inhibiting development and preventing nymphs from growing into adults. Landowners can be reimbursed up to 75% of the costs.

Diana Fillmore is a rancher participating in the new cost-sharing initiative. She says “the ground is just crawling with locusts” on her property.

ODA advised her to treat her 988-acre ranch in southeastern Oregon’s Arock. Since the program’s protocol calls for applying insecticide to only half of the proposed area, alternately targeting swaths and then skipping the next, that means nearly 500 acres of her land will actually be sprayed.

Fillmore decided to intervene, remembering last year’s damage.

“It was terrible,” Fillmore said. “Locusts have completely wiped out some of our fields.” She was forced to spend $45,000 on hay she wouldn’t normally have to buy.

Todd Adams, an entomologist and ODA’s field office in Eastern Oregon and coordinator of the Locust Program, said the ODA had received 122 research requests and sent 31 treatment recommendations by mid-June for about 40,000 acres (16,187 hectares).

Landowners must act quickly if they decide to spray diflubenzuron, as it is only effective against nymphs.

“Once they grow up, it’s too late,” Adams said.

Oregon’s new program is aimed at private landowners. But the federal government owns more than half of Oregon’s total land, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has its own program for outbreaks on western public lands.

The US government’s locust control program dates back to the 1930s, and the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has sprayed millions of acres with pesticides since the 1980s to fight outbreaks.

William Wesela, APHIS director of national policy, said the agency sprayed 326,581 acres of pastureland in seven western states in 2021. to Jake Bodart, Oregon’s state director of plant health.

In a 2019 risk assessment, APHIS acknowledged that the main insecticide used, diflubenzuron, “remains a limited-use pesticide due to its toxicity to aquatic invertebrates,” but said risks are low.

APHIS says it follows methods to reduce worry. It instructs those applying pesticides to skip swaths and apply the insecticide at a lower dosage than what is stated on the label.

But environmental groups oppose the program. Last month, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) sued APHIS in US court in Portland. In their dossier, they accuse APHIS of harming ecosystems in the grassland areas and not adequately informing the public about treatment areas.

They also allege that the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to review all alternatives to pesticides or analyze the program’s cumulative effects.

Federal officials declined to comment on the suit as it is pending in courts.

Environmentalists say the reduction of locusts reduces the food source of other wildlife that prey on them.

“We are very concerned about the impact of these broad, large sprays on our grassland and pasture ecosystems,” said Sharon Selvaggio, a specialist in the Xerces Society’s pesticide program.

Selvaggio added that the sprays “may be toxic to a wide variety of insects” except grasshoppers and Mormon crickets, and express particular concern for pollinators such as bees.

The two environmental groups want the agency to take a more holistic approach to pest management, exploring methods such as rotational grazing.

“We’re not trying to stop APHIS from ever using pesticides again,” said Andrew Missel, a staff attorney at Advocates for the West, the nonprofit law firm that filed the lawsuit. “The point is really to reform the program,” he added.

In Arlington, “cricket queen” Aamodt said residents had experimented with alternatives to pesticides. In 2017, some trees have been covered with duct tape to trap the insects. The following year, local officials brought in goats to graze the hills.

For now, those fighting future plagues hope the new state program will provide much-needed support.

“Keep in mind that these are people taking time out of their own lives to do this,” says OSU Extension Agent Maley. “The volunteers have made a huge difference.”

Rush is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national, not-for-profit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on classified issues.

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