Talk about deja vu.
Exactly 150 years after Mormon crickets earned a bad reputation by swarming over Utah settlers' young fields, they're baaaack.This time the insects - actually a species of wingless grasshoppers - are far away from the Salt Lake Valley, migrating across more than 20,000 acres of range and farmland near Vernon, Tooele County, says Brent Bunderson, the area's Utah State University Extension agent. There are also reports of them speckling the landscape along the Pony Express Trail near Simpson Springs farther west.
In the heat of the day, when the insects are busiest chomping, they're spread out, though it's difficult to step around them, he said. In the cool of the morning, though, the bugs can be found in near-dormant heaps.
"They gather under a sagebrush and pile on top of each other" to keep warm, Bunderson said. "You can scoop up a bushel basket of them without much effort at all."
They also accumulate in smaller clumps, two or three deep, along the roads. Killed by traffic, their former troop mates come in and eat the dead, Bunderson said. "That appears to be their favorite food."
The county's agent for four years now, Bunderson admits "this is a new phenomenon for me," one that's been building the past few years, with mild weather and lots of forage for the adult crickets. "I guess the old-timers have seen it a lot worse."
Robert King of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Salt Lake City said the agency is working with ranchers and landowners to stem the tide of insects coming off Forest Service land and to reduce forage damage.
To battle this year's overabundance, the USDA on Friday began spreading in the insect's migration path a wheat bran laced with a small dose of pesticide. This, King said, should slow and kill them.
Bunderson added that the crickets' tendency to feed upon their own dead should add to the toll - by up to seven times.
The pioneers didn't have such techniques.
In the spring of 1848, the settlers had been in Great Salt Lake City for less than a year. Provisions and food supplies were running desperately low, but gardens and the first shoots of winter wheat, rye and millet - already touched by frost - offered hope.
Then the invasion began.
"Today to our utter astonishment," Lorenzo Young wrote in his journal on May 27, "the crickets came by the millions, sweeping everything before them. They first attacked a patch of beans and in 20 minutes there was not a vestige of them to be seen. They next swept our peas."
They were, noted Zadoc Judd, "nearly as large as a man's thumb, and every day seemed to be gaining a little ground, eating every green thing they came to."
In May and June 1848, "an army of famine and despair . . . rolled in black legions down the mountainsides and attacked the fields of growing grain," historian Orson F. Whitney wrote in 1892. "The tender crops fell an easy prey to their fierce voracity. . . . Starvation with all its terrors seemed staring the poor settlers in the face."
Men, women and children fought back, crushing the insects - and sometimes, Whitney noted, stomping the plants in the process. They used sticks, brooms and willow branches. Some dug ditches around the fields and sent water into the trenches to deter or drown the invaders. The farmers burned some plots in an attempt to divert the swarm.
"Everything did look gloomy . . . ," wrote pioneer Priddy Meeks, "and we a thousand miles away from supplies."
"The prospects for grain are discouraging," Isaac C. Haight noted in his journal on June 4 as the plague continued. "Many of the saints begin to think of leaving the valley for fear of starvation."
John and Franklin Young, sons of pioneer leader Brigham Young, tried to save an acre of their father's wheat on land that is today in bustling downtown Salt Lake City. The insects were crawling to the head of the wheat, severing it, then descending to the ground to eat it, he wrote. "To prevent this, my brother and I each took an end of a long rope, stretched its full length, then walked through the grain holding the rope so as to hit the heads, and thus knock the crickets off."
Then, at midafternoon one day, the sea gulls came.
Meeks recalled that the beleaguered settlers had gathered for a meeting when he heard "fowells flying over head" - seven gulls at first, then more and more. "They came faster and more of them until the heavens were darkened with them and they would eat crickets and throw them up again."
John Young wrote later in life, "we thought that they also were after our wheat and this added to our terror; but we soon discovered they devoured only the crickets. Needless to say," he and his brother "quit drawing the rope and gave our gentle visitors the possession of the fields."
It was the stuff of legend and, as a 1913 monument to the timely gulls notes on Temple Square, "a modern-day miracle."
Sea Gull Monument, created by renowned sculptor Mahonri Young, is a tribute to the birds - a soaring granite pillar topped by two golden gulls. Bas relief bronze panels on a square base above a circular blue pool depict a Mormon family planting fields below the Wasatch peaks, praying as the sea gulls arrive and harvesting their fought-for grain.
Unlike the legendary locusts, which move in extremely large and densely populated groups, bands of Mormon crickets are smaller and fewer in number, King said. "There may be a lot of them, but they don't move like an army, shoulder to shoulder," he said.
A grasshopper band might be a half-mile wide and a half-mile long. "You think, egad, there's millions of them," King said, but there probably aren't. However, if the forage is green and munchable, "they'll take it as an easy meal," he said, be it grasses that range cattle like or cultivated wheat and alfalfa.
And once they've nibbled down an area, "they keep moving and don't necessarily hang around," he noted. The band may move ahead, shift laterally or head back into the foothills.
Interestingly, these almost black grasshoppers were not always the consumers - they were the consumed.
"They constitute the principal food of the Utah Indians, who eat them raw and roasted," William Keeley, a visitor to the valley, noted in an 1849 book. The Native Americans "also make a sort of paste or jam, by broiling them to a cinder, then pounding them very fine, and mixing them with a wild fruit called service berries."
Among the most successful of modern birds, there are 48 species of gulls around the world. Most common in Utah and around the Great Salt Lake is the California gull (often called a sea gull), seen in Western North America from Alaska to Mexico.
This gull breeds in marshes and beside lakes in the interior West. The species is primarily a spring and summer resident in northern Utah. Most seem to spend their winters on the Pacific coast, though a few stragglers are seen in Utah during winter.
The adult California gull can be 20 to 23 inches long. It has a white head, tail and belly, a gray to blue-gray back or mantle and black-tipped wings. The bill is yellow with a red or red and black spot near the tip of the lower mandible. Young birds have a more mottled coloring. The birds are strong, graceful fliers, with wingspans of about 54 inches.
DIET AND HABITS
A highly opportunistic forager and omnivorous eater, the gull consumes fish, eggs, fruit and mice as well as insects. The birds mate, build nests in colonies and lay generally two or three dark-brown to gray eggs in the spring. The young begin to hatch by mid- to late-May and learn to fly in about a month.
The California gull was officially named Utah's state bird in 1955, in recognition of its timely role in battling plagues of Mormon crickets in 1848 and succeeding years. As such, it is protected by law.
Sources: "The Bird Life of Great Salt Lake" by William H. Behle and "Encyclopedia of Birds."
Anabrus simplex Haldeman
Found throughout most of the Western United States and into Canada, from the Rocky Mountains to the coastal ranges.
Areas of mountain ranges and intermountain grasslands and range-lands.
Colored in developmental stages from tan to reddish-brown to dark green to near black, the Mormon cricket - actually a large, wingless katydid or grasshopper - is about 11/2 inches long as an adult. In midsummer, the female lays about 150 quarter-inch eggs in a well-drained, often sandy soil or, in some areas, in the crowns of bunch grass. Young crickets, or nymphs, can hatch as early as the following February, but usually in April.
DIET AND HABITS
Voracious feeders, Mormon crickets will eat most any green vegetation - including cultivated crops like small grains, alfalfa and garden vegetables. On a warm spring day, these awkward but mobile hopping-and-crawling insects are apt to begin mass migrations in bands from their breeding areas and are able to travel a half-mile to a mile a day, 25 to 30 miles in a season. It usually takes two or three years for an infestation to develop.
Dried and roasted Mormon crickets were once a food source for Native Americans. The insects earned a measure of infamy when they swarmed over the fields of pioneer Utah settlers beginning in 1848.
Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture and "Familiar Insects of America" by Will Barker; "The Bird Life of Great Salt Lake" by William H. Behle and "Encyclopedia of Birds."