Mormon crickets invade Nevada, the West

PALOMINO VALLEY -- Swarms of Mormon crickets are marching across the West, destroying rangeland and crops, leaving highways slick with their carcasses and disgusting residents.

"It's yucky," said Amy Nisbet of Elko in northeast Nevada, where this year crickets made their first appearance in the suburbs in memory. "You drive down the street and they pop like bubble wrap."

Mild winters and three years of drought have provided ideal conditions for the insects, which hatch in the spring and die by fall after laying eggs. Experts say this year's infestation in Nevada, Utah and Idaho could be the worst in decades.

Five million acres are infested in Nevada with the 2Y-inch long creeping insects, said Jeff Knight, entomologist with the Nevada Department of Agriculture.

"I've seen them eat weeds in a field but leave the alfalfa," Knight said. "Other times, they'll just strip the crop bare."

A Mormon cricket is more closely related to grasshoppers than crickets. They got their name in 1848 when they invaded the fields of Mormon settlers in Utah. According to lore, the settlers reportedly prayed for assistance that arrived in the form of gulls, which ate the insects and saved the settlers' crops.

Though Knight couldn't provide an economic damage estimate, he said this year's infestation is twice as widespread as last year. The bugs are showing up in places they haven't been before, such as Elko's city limits and Palomino Valley north of Reno.

Last week, Elko County commissioners declared a state of emergency because of the worsening two-week infestation.

Officials in southwestern Idaho say the infestation there is the worst since World War II.

"They've been building up there on the Boise front for several years, but last year was the first year everything seems to have coalesced and really erupted," said Mike Cooper of the Idaho Department of Agriculture.

"They're cyclic and they build up over a number of years, kind of peak, and then usually some kind of natural disease comes in a starts taking them down," Cooper said.

In Utah, agriculture officials estimate 6 million acres -- more than double last year's plague -- will be infested before the crickets die off by fall.

Earlier this spring, Nevada treated about 66,000 acres with an insecticide that prohibits their growth and kills the insects before they mature. The treatment cut down their numbers in some areas, but they're popping up elsewhere.

Nevada received $376,000 in federal funds to fight the insects, and $100,000 more might be forthcoming, Knight said.

The plan is to bait areas with carbaryl as the crickets advance. The insecticide, commonly known as Sevin, is mixed with bran. Crickets lured to the bait quickly die. The poisoned carcasses are then consumed by cannibalistic fellow crickets and also die.

State officials said their priority is to protect public lands, crops and motorists. Homeowners are on their own.

"We're doing our best to keep them off the highway," said Martin Larraneta, a state entomologist coordinating cricket controls in Elko. "It can be like a grease slick."

So far there are no reports of accidents caused by the crickets, authorities said.

While serious, this year's outbreak isn't the most severe in Nevada history, experts said.

A 1939 state publication noted an infestation in Eureka County in 1882, when trains were unable to make headway over the main line of the Central Pacific Railroad "due to the rails being so thoroughly greased with crushed crickets," state Archivist Guy Rocha said.

In the 1930s, a band of crickets 12 miles long and at times several feet deep was reported in Elko County, Rocha said.

Mormon crickets have existed for millions of years and were once a food source for Native Americans. Still, they horrify modern residents.

"When it comes to something that's six-legged, people have a big problem with that," Knight said.

Nisbet said her sons don't even want to go outside and play, though armed with brooms, they have rallied their courage for an occasional game of "cricket hockey."

Darlene Craven was horrified to find thousands of the large bugs swarming her yard and clinging to the outside of her home 20 miles north of Reno.

"When I came out here, I was in panic mode," she said, still shuddering from the sight hours later and tiptoeing around the hard-to-avoid critters.

After conferring with Knight on control methods, she instructed her husband, Ralph: "Kill those suckers before they lay eggs!"


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