Arlington, Ore. (AP) — Jordan Malle and April Amod drive down a winding canyon road in the northern Oregon suburbs, hunting for Mormon crickets, giant insects that can devastate crops.
“There is a fine,” says Aamodt.
It’s not difficult to spot them. Insects that can be larger than 5 cm stain the asphalt.
Mormon cricket is nothing new in Oregon. Their name comes from western North America and dates back to the 18th century when they ravaged the fields of Mormon settlers in Utah. But amid drought and warmer temperatures — favorable conditions for the insects — outbreaks in the west have worsened.
The Oregon Legislature allocated $5 million last year to assess the problem and establish a Mormon cricket and locust “suppression” program. Earlier this month, an additional $1.2 million was approved for the program.
It is part of a larger effort by state and federal officials in the western United States to combat an explosion of locusts and Mormon crickets that has struck from Montana to Nevada. However, some environmental groups oppose programs that rely on aerial spraying of pesticides over large swathes of land.
Malee, an Oregon State University Extension agent, and Aamodt, a resident of the small town of Arlington on the Columbia River, are both involved in spreading and surveying Mormon cricket in the area.
In 2017, Arlington experienced the largest outbreak of Mormon crickets since 1940. The roads were “slick,” with crushed entrails from giant insects that damaged nearby wheat crops.
Rancher Sky Krebs said the outbreaks were “truly biblical.”
“On the highways, as soon as you kill them, the rest comes,” he explained. Mormon crickets are cannibals and will feed alive or dead unless saturated with protein.
The insects, which are not true crickets but shield-backed katydids, are flightless. But according to Male, they can cover at least a quarter mile in a day.
Amod fought the wrath of 2017 that weighed on his hands.
“I took out the lawn mower and started chopping and killing them,” she said. “I took a straight spade and I would stab her.”
Aamodt organized volunteers to fight the infection and earned the nickname “Cricket Queen”.
Local officials “were digging into another infection last year,” Maley said.
“We had all these high quality crops and irrigation circuits,” he explained. “We just had to do what we could to stop them from going into it.”
In 2021 alone, Oregon agriculture officials estimated that 10 million acres of rangeland in 18 counties were damaged by locusts and Mormon crickets.
Under the new Oregon initiative, private landowners, such as farmers and ranchers, can apply to the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) to have their land surveyed. If the ODA finds more than three Mormon crickets or eight locusts per square meter, they recommend chemical treatment. In some areas near Arlington surveyed in May shortly after hatching, there were 201 Mormon crickets per square yard.
State officials recommend aerial use of Diflubenzuron. The insecticide works by stunting growth and preventing the nymphs from growing into adults. Property owners can get up to 75% of the costs reimbursed.
Diana Fillmore is a rancher and part of the new cost-sharing initiative. She says that on her property, “the ground is just crawling with locusts.”
Oda recommends that he treat his 988-acre farm in southeastern Oregon. Since the program’s protocol stipulates that insecticides only be applied to half of the proposed area, excluding the closest after optionally targeting the swath, this means that about 500 acres of his land will actually be sprayed.
Fillmore decided to take action, recalling last year’s loss.
“It was awful,” Fillmore said. “The locust completely wiped out some of our farms.” He had to spend $45,000 on hay he wouldn’t normally have to buy.
Todd Adams, an entomologist and ODA field office in eastern Oregon and coordinator of the locust program, said that through mid-June, the ODA had received 122 survey requests and sent 31 treatment recommendations for about 40,000 acres (16,187 ha).
Landlords 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 all of Oregon’s land, and the US 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 insecticides on millions of acres to control outbreaks since the 1980s.
APHIS national policy director William Vesella said the agency sprayed 807,000 acres (326,581 ha) of rangeland in seven western states in 2021. So far this year she has received requests for treatment in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada and Arizona. Jake Boddart, his state plant health director for Oregon.
In a 2019 risk assessment, APHIS acknowledged that the main insecticide used, diflubenzuron, “remains an insecticide of restricted use due to its toxicity to aquatic invertebrates” but said the risks were small.
APHIS says it is finding ways to allay concerns. It instructs pesticide applicators to dispose of the swath and apply the pesticide at lower rates than indicated on the label.
But environmental organizations reject the program. Last month, the Gerris Society for Invertebrate Conservation and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) sued APHIS in US District Court in Portland. In their filing, they accused APHIS of damaging rangeland ecosystems and failing to adequately inform the public about treatment areas.
He also claimed that the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not evaluating all alternatives to insecticides or analyzing the cumulative effects of the program.
Federal officials declined to comment on the lawsuit because it is pending in court.
Conservationists say the lack of locusts is reducing the food source of other wildlife they hunt.
“We are very concerned about the impact of these widespread, large sprays on our grassland and rangeland ecosystems,” said Sharon Selvagio, a pesticide programs specialist at the Xerces Society.
Selvagio said the sprays could be “toxic to a variety of insects” and expressed particular concern for pollinators like bees, beyond grasshoppers and Mormon crickets.
Two environmental groups want the agency to take a more holistic approach to pest control by exploring methods like rotational grazing.
“We are not trying to stop APHIS from using pesticides again,” said Andrew Michel, an attorney at Advocates for Waste, the nonprofit law firm that filed the lawsuit. “It’s really about improving,” he said.
In Arlington, “cricket queen” Aamodt said residents have been experimenting with insecticide alternatives. In 2017, some trees were covered with tape to trap the insects. The following year, local officials brought goats to the hills to graze.
For now, those battling future infections are hoping the new government program will bring much-needed support.
“Remember, these are people who are taking the time of their lives to do this,” said OSU Extension Agent Male. “Volunteers made a difference”
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