‘Biblical’ swarms of insects spur Oregon to fight pests

Jordan Maley and April Aamodt drive down a windy canyon road in the northern Oregon Rangeland on the lookout for Mormon crickets, giant insects that can devastate crops.

“There’s one,” says Aamodt.

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

Mormon crickets are not new to Oregon. Their name comes from western North America and dates back to the 18th century when they were destroying the fields of the Mormon settlers in Utah. But amid drought and warming — conditions favored by the insects — outbreaks have worsened in the West.

The Oregon Legislature allocated $5 million last year to assess the problem and establish a Mormon cricket and locust “suppression” program. An additional $1.2 million for the program was approved earlier this month.

It is part of a larger effort by state and federal agencies in the western United States 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 swaths of land.

Maley, an Oregon State University advisor, and Aamodt, a resident of the small town of Arlington on the Columbia River, are both involved in spreading and measuring Mormon cricket in the region.

In 2017, Arlington experienced the largest outbreak of Mormon crickets since the 1940s. The roads were “greasy” from the crushed entrails of the giant insects that were damaging nearby wheat fields.

Oregon farmers, already grappling with extreme drought and low water supplies, are bracing for another infestation of locusts and Mormon crickets.
Oregon farmers, already grappling with extreme drought and low water supplies, are bracing for another infestation of locusts and Mormon crickets.
Diana Fillmore via AP

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

“On the highways, the others come as soon as they’re killed,” he explained. Mormon crickets are cannibals and will eat each other, dead or alive, unless saturated with protein.

The insects, which are not true crickets but shield-backed katydids, are flightless. But according to Maley, they can cover at least a quarter mile in a day.

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

“I got out the lawnmower and started mowing and killing them,” she said. “I took a straight pickaxe and stabbed her.”

Aamodt organized volunteers to help fight the infestation, earning the nickname the ‘cricket queen’.

Another infestation last year had local officials “crawling,” 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.”

In 2021 alone, Oregon agriculture officials estimated that 10 million acres of rangeland in 18 counties were damaged by locusts and Mormon crickets.

Mormon crickets were seen on Blalock Canyon Road near Arlington, Oregon on Friday, June 17, 2022.
AP Photo/Claire Rush

Under the new Oregon initiative, private landowners such as farmers and ranchers can request the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) to survey their land. If ODA finds more than three Mormon crickets or eight locusts per square meter, it recommends 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 inhibiting development and preventing 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 her property is crawling with locusts.

ODA recommended her treating her 988-acre ranch in Arock, southeastern Oregon. Since the program’s protocol is to only apply insecticides to half of the proposed area, alternately targeting swaths and then skipping the next, it means nearly 500 acres of their land are actually being sprayed.

Fillmore decided to act, recalling last year’s damage.

“It was awful,” Fillmore said. “Locusts just 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 coordinator for ODA’s Eastern Oregon field office and locust program, said that in mid-June, ODA received 122 survey requests and sent out 31 treatment recommendations covering approximately 40,000 acres (16,187 hectares).

April Aamodt holds a Mormon cricket she found Friday June 17, 2022 in Blalock Canyon near Arlington, Oregon.
April Aamodt holds a Mormon cricket she found Friday June 17, 2022 in Blalock Canyon near Arlington, Oregon.
AP Photo/Claire Rush

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

APHIS National Policy Director William Wesela said the agency sprayed 807,000 acres (326,581 hectares) of rangeland in seven western states in 2021. So far this year she has received applications for treatment in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada and Arizona to Jake Bodart, Oregon’s state plant health director.

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

APHIS says it follows methods to reduce concerns. It instructs pesticide applicators to skip swaths and apply the insecticide at lower rates than indicated on the label.

But environmental organizations reject the program. Last month, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) sued APHIS in US District Court in Portland. In their filing, they accuse APHIS of harming rangeland ecosystems and failing to adequately inform the public about treatment areas.

They also allege that the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not evaluating all alternatives to pesticides or analyzing the program’s cumulative impacts.

In this photo provided by rancher Diana Fillmore, locusts swarm around rancher Diana Fillmore's dog on her land in Arock, Oregon on July 6, 2021.
In this photo taken by rancher Diana Fillmore, locusts swarm around Fillmore’s dog on her land in Arock, Oregon on July 6, 2021.
Diana Fillmore via AP

Federal officials declined to comment on the lawsuit because it is pending in court.

Conservationists say reducing locusts reduces the food source of other wildlife they hunt.

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

Selvaggio added that the sprays can be “toxic to a variety of insects,” in addition to grasshoppers and Mormon crickets, and expressed particular concern about pollinators like bees.

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

“We are not trying to prevent APHIS from ever using pesticides again,” said Andrew Missel, an attorney with Advocates for the West, the nonprofit law firm that filed the lawsuit. “It’s really about reforming the program,” he added.

In Arlington, “cricket queen” Aamodt said residents have been experimenting with pesticide alternatives. In 2017, some trees were covered with tape to trap the insects. The following year, local officials brought goats to graze on the hillsides.

For now, those fighting future infestations are hoping the new government program will bring much-needed support.

“Remember, these are people taking time off from their own lives to do this,” OSU Extension Agent Maley said. “The volunteers made a big difference” ‘Biblical’ swarms of insects spur Oregon to fight pests


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