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Crickets Utah Plague*
Plague of Crickets Does $25 Million Damage to Crops in Utah
By MICHAEL JANOFSKY
George Frey for The New York Times
One of the crickets eats a plant near Oak City, Utah.
George Frey for The New York Times
Scott Overson, a federal agriculture worker, spreads poison bait for Mormon crickets.
INTIC JUNCTION, Utah, June 14 "I've got a war on my hands here," Scott Overson said, climbing off his all-terrain vehicle.
The enemy was all around: Mormon crickets, as they are known here, huge hordes of them, some marching across the dirt road, some munching on nearby foliage, some munching on each other.
"They're cannibals," said Mr. Overson, who works for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the United States Agriculture Department. "They'll eat anything, including each other."
For much of this spring, Utah has been the main course for countless Mormon crickets and a variety of equally hungry grasshoppers. Gov. Michael O. Leavitt recently declared an agricultural emergency, asking the Agriculture Department to help combat critters that state experts say have infested more than 1.5 million acres in 18 of the state's 29 counties, causing at least $25 million in crop damage. Governor Leavitt turned to Washington because lands managed by federal agencies have become the insects' primary hatching grounds and, after they have grown, their favorite entree.
Mr. Leavitt has not heard back, leaving people like Mr. Overson and Edward J. Bianco, the state's head entomologist, to wonder how they will turn the tide of a fight they seem to be losing. Just one Mormon cricket, a slightly more voracious eater than a grasshopper, can consume up to 38 pounds of forage in its brief life of several months.
With limited resources, the state has mounted strikes in areas of concentrated infestations by dropping poisonous bait, as Mr. Overson was doing here today over an expanse of range in Juab County. Other efforts include spraying from the air where feasible and encouraging local residents to use retail insecticides to protect their lawns and gardens. Elsewhere, the insects reign.
"We'll never get rid of them," Mr. Bianco said, holding a dying cricket that had ingested some of the bait. "We'll be fighting them for 200 years. But the ultimate goal now is to control their population to where there is no economic damage to farmers."
That could be a long way off. The insects have bedeviled Utah farmers since Mormon pioneers settled in Utah more than 150 years ago, hence the cricket's name. Some years have not been so bad as others because of colder weather that curbs reproduction. But in milder winters, like the most recent few, each female cricket drops as many as 180 eggs, which make for eye-popping sights once the eggs mature into little eating machines.
"Couple weeks ago, I saw a band of them crossing a road," Mr. Overson said of grown crickets, which are two inches long. "The road was black with them, and they were three deep on top of each other."
Utah farmers are bewildered. Brandon George, who raises grain on several hundred acres near Kanosh in Millard County, said insects have destroyed half of his barley crop and most of his hay, costing him tens of thousands of dollars in lost sales and outlays for seeds to replace damaged crops.
"It's incredible how many there are, and I've sprayed twice," Mr. George said. "My neighbor, Ned Harris he's lost a bunch of crops too, same as me."
Crickets and grasshoppers this spring have invaded parts of other Western states, like Idaho, Nevada and California. But Congress has resisted spending to combat them. The Agriculture Department's control program was established in 1985 with $20 million and received new annual appropriations only through 1993. During the next six years, unused money was held in reserve until it ran out in 1999. This year, Congress gave the program $300,000.
The Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Interior Department, began a similar control program in 1987 with $5 million. But annual appropriations decreased, to $318,000 in the 2000 fiscal year. The bureau received an emergency appropriation of $1.48 million in the current budget.
State and federal experts say the lack of money, combined with efforts by environmental groups to block use of airdropped insecticides because of their potential effect on the human food supply, has helped the insect population grow so much that Mr. Overson said it was impossible to estimate how many there are.
"Millions?" he said dismissively. "They're infinitesimal. There isn't a number."
After a long day of dropping lethal bait off the back of his all-terrain vehicle, Mr. Overson looked a little bedraggled. All around him, healthy crickets hopped among their dead and dying brethren, a scene that reminded him of the magnitude of the task. For now, he said, the department cannot afford more than a handful of workers working the front lines, dropping bait.
"What I'd like to do," he said, "is box up a bunch of these bugs and dump them in a Congressional office. That would create some chaos. Then maybe we can get some more help."
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