By Amy Lorentzen ~ The Associated Press
VERDIGRE, Neb. -- Their numbers swelled by the drought, grasshoppers and Mormon crickets are ravaging crops and pastures across the West in what could be the biggest such infestation since World War II.
"They're even eating the paint off some of the houses," said Nebraska farmer Robert Larsen, who raises alfalfa, corn, soybeans and cattle on 1,600 acres where thousands upon thousands grasshoppers jump out of the way as he walks by in what looks like the parting of the sea.
The infestation threatens the livelihood of farmers and ranchers already suffering because of the dry spell.
Agriculture officials are reluctant to put a dollar figure on the damage so far this year. But last year, grasshoppers and Mormon crickets -- a black, wingless cousin of the grasshopper -- caused $25 million in crop damage in Utah alone.
A mild winter and hot, dry weather since the spring have sped up the maturation of some grasshopper species and allowed more of the insects and their eggs to survive the cold. The drought has also cut into the population of birds and rodents that prey on grasshoppers, and reduced the fungal diseases that normally keep the insects' numbers down.
The result: Larsen and other farmers in parts of Nebraska have counted 50 to 100 grasshoppers per square yard in their fields, compared with three or four during a typical year. Even worse, near Steamboat Springs, Colo., about 200 grasshoppers per square yard invaded rangeland in June, reaching about 1 million grasshoppers per acre.
"We probably have farmers that have never experienced it before. The ones that have are probably in their 60s or 70s," said Michael Cooper, chairman of the National Grasshopper Management Board and acting administrator for the Idaho Department of Agriculture.
Nebraska, New Mexico, Idaho, Oregon and South Dakota are among the states hit hardest. But outbreaks have been reported in parts of most states west of the Mississippi River.
A grasshopper can devour more than half its body weight in vegetation per day, which can leave crops looking like Swiss cheese and rob pastures of feed for cattle.
"You walk across the edge of some fields and it looks like it is moving," said Ron Seymour, a University of Nebraska extension educator based in Hastings.
Farmers are left with two options: They can hold out for a change in the weather -- rain would encourage the spread of predators and diseases that can kill off grasshoppers -- or they can spray pesticides. But spraying can be costly.
Hiring an aerial sprayer can cost $6 to more than $11 per acre depending on the type of land and the chemicals used, said Dahl Jungren, owner of Flying J Aviation in Broken Bow. Cropland is more expensive than rangeland.
A total of $3.6 million is available to farmers this year through the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for surveys and technical assistance in dealing with the grasshopper infestation. But that does not pay for spraying or the damage done by the pests.
Some ranchers will have to decide whether to try to save their grass or give up and buy hay to feed their cattle.
And the problem could get a lot worse. Many of the grasshoppers are still young and will become more voracious after they have become winged adults this month.
Also, grasshopper infestations can contribute to high numbers of other pests such as blister beetles, which feed on grasshopper eggs. The beetles, also known as potato bugs, blister the throats and stomachs of animals that eat them while feeding on alfalfa.
Dawson and Custer counties in the center of Nebraska are seeing some of the worst grasshopper infestations. About 40,000 acres -- 62.5 square miles -- were sprayed in May alone in Custer County.
"This is probably the most widespread infestation I've seen," Jungren said, "and I've been in the business for 30 years."