Plague of crickets gnaws Idaho lands - Bugs click, chomp and romp through southwestern counties in what may be worst outbreak since WWII

Mormon crickets are swarming over southwestern Idaho, devouring plants and slickening roads with their carcasses when vehicles run over them.

Betsy Z. Russell
Spokesman-Review Staff writer
Troy Maben - Special to The Spokesman-Review


BOISE, Idaho-- With the "click, click, click" of Mormon crickets sounding softly in the bushes around his dusty cowboy boots, Mike Renfro pointed out a hillside on his ranch that until recently was covered with bright-yellow wildflowers.

"They ate all the petals off them," he said. "This whole hill was yellow, but it's not anymore."

With a wry smile, he added, "I mean, that ain't hurting us if they eat that instead of the hay."

But Renfro lost a third of his hay crop last year to Mormon crickets, and this year looks to be worse. Southwestern Idaho is facing its worst outbreak of Mormon crickets since World War II, with swarms of the pesky katydids so thick in places that they're a road hazard, as well as an ugly nuisance and a huge threat to crops.

"Our Boise County commissioners declared a disaster," said Fawn Carey, disaster services coordinator for the county in Horseshoe Bend, Idaho. "Right now they're just kind of grazing. In two weeks, they'll just start gorging, and they'll devastate anything that's green. ... Last year our crickets were about a mile wide -- this year they got as much as 2 miles wide on the highway."

That's why the state had to post warning signs on Highway 55 near Horseshoe Bend, warning of crickets on the road.

"Their guts and stuff, they just get mashed," said Mike Cooper, a state Department of Agriculture official who persuaded the state Board of Examiners this week to authorize $250,000 in cricket control measures. "You get hundreds and thousands of them on a spot, it just gets gooey, and it can get slick."

Added Carey, "It's worse than black ice."

She said there were several vehicle slide-offs in the past two weeks on the slick road, "but luckily, nobody was hurt this year."

`We'll never kill them'
State and federal agencies killed off crickets along Highway 55 twice in the past two weeks, and the second time, it appeared to work. But now, they're building up a few miles away near Arrowrock Reservoir.

They're not actually crickets -- they're a species of shieldbacked katydid that belong to a grasshopper family and are distinguished by their females' long, sword-shaped ovipositors, which look like menacing stingers. Their voracious appetites take in anything, from all types of plants to the bodies of their brethren. They eat so much that at a density of just one cricket per square yard, they consume 38 pounds of forage per acre as they pass through an area.

The bugs seem to come in little-understood cycles, with a few here and there for years, and then sudden eruptions of hundreds of thousands that can last for years. They thrive in drought-prone areas. One 11-state outbreak that started in 1931 lasted 17 years.

"We'll never kill them, we'll never get rid of them -- all we're trying to do is just cut them down," Carey said.

When they hatch in great numbers, Mormon crickets band together, once mature, and move in waves across the countryside, devouring everything as they go. At the end of their 60- to 90-day life cycle, they lay eggs that incubate through the winter, then hatch in the spring.

According to a much-cited study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1959, Mormon crickets likely inhabited the West long before the first Mormon settlers discovered them as they moved into Utah in 1847. Remains found near a Nevada hot spring suggest the species may have existed in the area thousands of years ago.

But the pioneers didn't know that when they rolled into Utah, and tried to eke out a living by planting crops. In 1848, a black wave of bugs poured out of the mountains into the Salt Lake valley, and began attacking the pioneers' pride -- 900 acres of tender new wheat meant to sustain a growing community.

As the pioneers tried without success to beat and burn the crickets out of their fields, flocks of seagulls suddenly appeared and began feasting on the crickets. The crops were saved.

The event was so hailed that the insects became known as Mormon crickets, to the consternation of scientists who noted that they were katydids.

"This inappropriate common name became so firmly established, that it was finally approved by the American Association of Economic Entomologists in 1927," entomologist Claude Wakeland reported in the USDA study.

Birds still go nuts for the Mormon crickets.

"Over in the Arrowrock area, the birds and the seagulls will eat so many of them that they can't just take off and fly, they've got to jump off a cliff to catch some air," Carey said. "Some will literally gorge themselves to death."

`Death bridge'
The Arrowrock area has many creeks, and Carey said it poses a problem because carbaryl bait that kills the crickets can't be sprayed or spread near creeks. Mormon crickets can't swim, but that doesn't stop them from hopping and crawling right into creeks on their migrations.

"They'll step on each other and drown each other," she said. "Our crickets turn the water red. They build what I'm calling a death bridge til they can cross each other."

She figures the biblical story of the plague of locusts followed by the Nile turning red fits right in with the pattern -- like Idaho's crickets, the locusts could have swarmed into the water and drowned, turning it red.

Southwestern Idaho had a bad year for Mormon crickets last year, but Cooper said this year is worse. "It's a lot heavier, and it's a lot more widespread," he said.

Eastern Idaho had bad outbreaks in the early 1990s, but they were mostly in sparsely populated areas and farther from humans.

The outbreak that came just before World War II led to tales of crickets devouring gardens in downtown Boise, and homeowners putting sheet metal around their yards to try to keep the crickets out.

"They've been building out there on the Boise Front for several years, but last year was the first year everything seems to have coalesced and really erupted," Cooper said. "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 and starts taking them down. But the peak can last several years before that happens."

Worst of all, Cooper fears that southwestern Idaho hasn't reached the peak of the current outbreak, though swarms of crickets have become horrifyingly thick in places.

Said Carey: "They're just astronomical -- I don't even think there's even a number to count them."

Renfro, the rancher, is resigned to losing much of his hay crop, which he uses to feed his livestock. "They told us last year, they were going to lay their eggs and it'd be worse this year," he said. "They hit the hay crop harder this year than they did last year."

Once the crickets are on the move, their mobility makes them harder to kill, because they can travel a mile in a day and up to 50 miles in a season.

Said Cooper: "You stumble into them and you go, `Oh, my God, I can't believe they're all over the place.' Then you come back the next day, and they're nowhere to be found, because the band has moved on."


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