A punishing drought in the western United States is destroying waterways, starting fires and causing farmers to crawl for water. Next up: a plague of voracious locusts.
Federal agricultural officials launch what may be their largest campaign to kill locusts since the 1980s amid an outbreak of drought-loving insects that ranchers fear will wipe out public and private land.
In downtown Montana’s Phillips County, more than 500 miles from the nearest town, Frank Wiederrick said large numbers of locusts had appeared on the prairie surrounding his ranch in recent days. They are already starting to deny trees around his house.
“They are everywhere,” said Wiederrick. “Drought and grasshoppers belong together and they purify us.”
Western dehydrating locusts
This undated U.S. Department of Agriculture dividend photo shows locusts eating a plant.
Locusts thrive in hot, dry weather, and the population had already increased last year, setting the stage for an even bigger outbreak in 2021. Such outbreaks could become more common as climate change shifts precipitation patterns, researchers say.
To prevent the economic damage to the grassroots, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started spraying the pesticide diflubenzuron this week to kill locust nymphs before they develop into adults. About 3,000 square miles are expected to be sprayed in Montana, about twice the size of Rhode Island.
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Agriculture officials had seen this year’s attack coming after a 2020 survey found dense concentrations of adult locusts in about 55,000 square kilometers to the west. A 2021 Locust Hazard Map shows densities of at least 15 insects per square foot in large areas of Montana, Wyoming, and Oregon, as well as parts of Idaho, Arizona, Colorado, and Nebraska.
Unanswered, federal officials said the agricultural damage from locusts could get so severe that it could drive up beef and crop prices.
The scope of the program has frightened environmentalists, who say the spread will largely kill many insects, including spiders and other locust predators, as well as species of combat like monarch butterflies. They also fear that pesticides could destroy organic farms in addition to spray zones.
“We’re talking about spraying natural areas, that’s not farmland,” said Sharon Selvaggio, a former American fish and wildlife biologist who now works for the Xerces Society, an insect protection group.
Western dry grasshoppers grass
This undated photo from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Phytosanitary Inspection Service shows a male migratory locust.
Government officials say they will spray pesticides in low concentrations and will reduce the area treated by alternately spraying a strip of land and then skipping the next strip. The intent is to kill locusts that pass between the strips while rescuing other insects that don’t move that far.
If spraying is delayed and the locusts get bigger and more resilient, government documents suggest that federal officials could resort to two more toxic pesticides – carbaryl and malathion.
Selvaggio said pesticides can get into areas that aren’t targeted and can kill beneficial insects like bees that pollinate plants. “The toxicity is more than enough to kill bees,” she said. “That’s not enough protection.”
Organic farmers are divided into syringes. Some are concerned that if they accidentally get pesticides on their crops they could lose their organic certification for years, while others are willing to have respect for their neighbors’ troubles, says Jamie Ryan Lockman, director of Organic Montana.
The trade group won’t contest the spraying, but wants organic farmers to be protected and the government investigating alternatives to chemicals for future outbreaks.
When this year’s locusts emerge, they’ll be competing with cattle for food in arid eastern Montana, where individual farms can spread over thousands of acres of private and public land.