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Farmers stall the march of Mormon crickets

Published: Wednesday, May 30 2012 6:49 p.m. MDT

USDA employee Curt Gentry drives out on an ATV to spread poison bait for Mormon crickets on the rangeland. It contains apple pulp to attract the crickets with a tempting scent and flavor. But within minutes of eating it, the crickets collapse and die.

Alan Neves, Deseret News

BEAVER COUNTY — A month ago, Utah farmers and ranchers were staring down an advancing horde of bugs. It was the biggest onslaught of Mormon crickets in eight   years.

But an all-out air attack by state and federal agencies appears to have blunted, if not wiped out, the insect attack.

"It was the worst infestation we've had since 2004," said Greg Abbott with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "We were afraid they were going to get away from us. We thought we were going to have crickets coming into Beaver and Manderfield."

A single Mormon cricket is not really a problem. But by the billions, they'll eat anything.  Grass, crops, sagebrush — even laundry on the clothesline — are all fodder for their enormous appetites.

Many Utahns can remember previous cricket invasions so dense they made the ground appear to crawl. And that's what portions of central Utah were facing a few weeks ago.

USDA employee Curt Gentry drives out daily on an ATV to spread poison bait on the rangeland. It contains apple pulp to attract the crickets with a tempting scent and flavor. But within minutes of eating it, the crickets collapse and die. The goal of the effort is to protect ranches and farms from the crickets' voracious foraging.

"The farmers are very happy when we keep it away out of their hay fields," Gentry said. "Especially if it's been fresh planted. Like oats, for example. They're very tender and that's just like ice cream to the crickets."

The poison bait method is being used only on the margins of the infestation. The most effective battle tactic has been aerial spraying from crop-duster airplanes. During the past four weeks, federal and state agencies have sprayed about 56,000 acres hardest hit by the infestation in Millard and Beaver counties.  As a result, Abbott said it's hard to find a live cricket in those areas now.

"It looks better, by far, than we thought it would," Abbott said.

The aerial spraying program has ended for now, but poison bait is still being used daily to make sure a new wave of hungry bugs doesn't break out and start marching across the landscape.

"So far it has been pretty good. We feel good about ourselves as far as wanting to be ahead of the game," Gentry said.

The kill also came before the female crickets laid their eggs, Gentry said. By knocking the invasion down early, the poisoning program may have taken the edge off of next year's onslaught.

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com

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