Big bugs in­vade the West

Three-inch Mor­mon crick­ets swarm ev­ery 8 years.

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Re­becca Boone

BOISE, Idaho — Farm­ers in the West face a creepy scourge ev­ery eight years or so: Swarms of rav­en­ous in­sects that can dec­i­mate crops and cause slip­pery, bug-slick car crashes as they march across high­ways and roads.

Ex­perts say this year could be a ban­ner one for Mor­mon crick­ets — 3-inch-long bugs named af­ter the Mor­mon pi­o­neers who moved West and learned first­hand the in­sect’s dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on for­age and grain fields.

The U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s An­i­mal Plant Health In­spec­tion Ser­vice re­ports “sig­nif­i­cantly higher Mor­mon cricket pop­u­la­tions” on fed­eral land in south­west­ern Idaho, agency spokes­woman Abbey Pow­ell wrote in an email to The As­so­ci­ated Press.

“There isn’t a clear ex­pla­na­tion why pop­u­la­tions are so much higher this year,” Pow­ell wrote. “We know that pop­u­la­tions are cycli­cal. In Idaho, in a few lo­ca­tions, we have seen pop­u­la­tions as high as 70 per square yard.”

The bugs can be detri­men­tal to ran­ge­land and crops when they num­ber about eight per square yard, state of­fi­cials said.

The fed­eral agency says the bugs — an en­to­mo­log­i­cal cousin to grasshop­pers — are stretched across south­west­ern Idaho, con­cen­trated in Win­nemucca, Nev.; and sprin­kled through Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton, Mon­tana, Wyoming, Ari­zona and Colorado.

Res­i­dents in the north­cen­tral Ore­gon town of Ar­ling­ton started deal­ing with Mor­mon crick­ets in June, scram­bling to pro­tect gar­dens and farm crops and try­ing to keep the bugs from in­vad­ing homes through open win­dows and doors.

Out-of-con­trol swarms can mean big eco­nomic losses for states. In 2003, some coun­ties in Idaho and Ne­vada were forced to de­clare states of emer­gency be­cause of cricket-caused dam­age. Es­ti­mates of crop dam­age in Utah reached more than $25 mil­lion in 2001.

Po­lice and trans­porta­tion work­ers also keep an eye on in­va­sions. The bugs are juicy when squished, and when swarms cross the road, they can make the pave­ment as slick as ice.

Idaho State Po­lice Lt. Col. Shel­don Kel­ley has re­sponded to wrecks and slide-offs caused by the bug slicks.

“Most peo­ple don’t know they are com­ing” un­til their car is al­most on top of the swarm, he said.

Driv­ers who see pave­ment that looks like it is mov­ing should slow down and drive as if they are on icy roads, he said. Po­lice work with trans­porta­tion of­fi­cials to post warn­ings and, if nec­es­sary, sand roads fouled by cricket car­casses.

Lloyd Knight, a di­vi­sion ad­min­is­tra­tor with the Idaho De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture, said he hoped last win­ter’s huge snow­storms would nat­u­rally limit their num­bers. Fe­male crick­ets can lay up to 100 eggs each sum­mer, which hatch the fol­low­ing spring.

As it turns out, the deep snow cover helped in­su­late and pro­tect the eggs, he said.

ANDY BAR­RON/AP

When Mor­mon cricket swarms cross roads, they can make the pave­ment as slick as ice.

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