For now, it looks as if farmers are pulling slightly ahead in a seemingly never-ending race to save their farmland from hordes of chirping pests.
Mormon crickets began descending from their hatching places in the Sheep Mountains of Tooele County in early June. Traveling in hordes reportedly a football field across and a foot deep, the waves of hungry crickets meant impending doom for alfalfa fields.But a recent search for these legendary hordes in Vernon revealed them to be thin and spread out. Thanks to modern abatement techniques, farmers' fields are being saved.
"It's kind of like pneumonia," said one cricket-killer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "You're in your last, worst days and you think you're going to die, then suddenly you make a recovery."
The work of such agents is indeed critical. Distributing seven bags of bait, this agent estimated he killed up to 6 million crickets. Along the way, he put 2,000 miles on his four-wheeler in the past week.
All to save farmland.
And where are the seagulls? Too busy hovering around the Salt Lake landfill to pay much attention, locals say.
The scene in Vernon today is quite different from what this USDA agent saw a few weeks ago.
"When I first came in here, it alarmed me. I was mad. I said, `What is going on here?' "
The crickets, which range from reddish-brown to black and measure about an inch and a half long, are falling prey to the UDSA, whose baiters ride the base of mountain ranges to distribute wheat germ laced with carbayl. This technique has been up to 90 percent effective, said Brent Bunderson, a Tooele County agriculture agent.
Farmer and state representative Jim Gowans said there hasn't been a lot of damage to his farm, but he won't know for sure until he cuts his hay.
Baiters and farmers agree more time and money are needed for the project to be truly successful. They want to secure funding through mid-July to kill as many insects as possible before they are mature enough to reproduce.
The Tooele County Commission recently allotted $8,000 to help with the problem, but those involved believe more funds need to be saved, especially to set up a program next year.
Bunderson said the problem could be five times worse next year, which could be devastating.
This is the third summer of reports of Mormon crickets in the area. But this year's weather conditions seemed to be ideal for the insects, with lots of rain and a good base of plants to feed on, Bunderson said. Mild spring conditions allowed nearly every egg to hatch, he said.
Baiting the crickets has kept them from reaching homes in town.