Mormon crickets are back — 3 inches long and wreaking havoc in Idaho

Owyhee County ranchers Elias and Inez Jaca have already gone through 40 sacks of bait trying to kill the swarm of Mormon crickets overrunning their land and creating a nuisance for their livestock.

“On our farm they got into the alfalfa feed, and they ate it,” Inez Jaca said. “When they went to bait, the sensors said it’s too wet because they were in there making the hay wet, and then the cattle won’t want to eat the hay.”

Mormon crickets, crop-destroying insects, have caused plenty of trouble this year in Southwest Idaho. Elmore, Gem, Owyhee and Washington counties seem the most affected.

Farmers in the West face this creepy scourge every few years or so: swarms of ravenous insects that can decimate crops and cause slippery, bug-slick car crashes as they march across highways and roads.

Experts say this year could be a banner one for the crickets — 3-inch-long bugs named after the Mormon pioneers who moved West and learned firsthand the insect’s devastating effect on forage and grain fields.

Spreading government-provided bait is the most effective way of treating the pests. Since the crickets are cannibalistic, they’ll kill themselves by eating other crickets who have died from being poisoned.

Tom Elias, owner of Tundra Acres Vineyard in Owyhee County, said most of his crop was destroyed from the harsh winter, and then the crickets came and finished it off.

“I got a double whammy,” he said.

Localized Mormon cricket infestations occur every year around Idaho, said Lloyd Knight, administrator of the Division of Plant Industries at the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.

Elias said the crickets appeared essentially overnight and stayed on his property for roughly three days. He knew something was wrong when his outdoor pets were all inside.

“The crickets are the biggest ones I’ve ever seen. They were like 3 inches long the morning I woke up,” Elias said. “They just came and wiped out the entire vineyard.”

Scott Jensen, a University of Idaho Extension educator in Owyhee County, estimated 20 to 30 farms south of Marsing have been hit. The crop most affected in that area is alfalfa hay, he said.

The extent of damage is related to how quickly farmers get bait out to kill the insects, Jensen said. The state department of agriculture provides carbaryl bait free to farms that are 5 acres or larger.

“The bait is pretty effective, as long as you can get the crickets to stop and eat,” he said. “A lot of time when they are on the move, if you lay out a strip, they march right over the top of it. It’s a matter of getting them to stop marching and start eating.”

The highest levels of crickets found this summer in Idaho are along Reynolds Creek west of the Owyhee County town of Murphy, said Brian Marschman, director of Idaho plant health for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

“At some locations we have seen 70 per square yard, which is quite high,” he said. The bugs can start to be a detriment to rangeland and crops when they number about eight per square yard, state officials said.

Mormon crickets are actually flightless katydids and not true crickets. They’re native to the western United States. One of this state’s insect experts said he saw small numbers of the bugs in the Boise Foothills off Bogus Basin Road last weekend.

“They are typically always out there, and you don’t notice them,” said Paul Castrovillo, an entomologist at the state agriculture department. Ada County Emergency Management offers tips online for homeowners concerned about them.

The crickets’ preferred habitat is the sagebrush steppe of the high desert, Castrovillo said.

“When they start to build up in numbers, sometimes they’ll spread out to nearby areas,” he said. They can wreak havoc on farm crops, with swarms quickly eating through fields.

Out-of-control swarms can mean big economic losses for states. In 2003, some counties in Idaho and Nevada were forced to declare states of emergency because of cricket-caused damage.

Police and transportation workers also keep an eye on invasions. The bugs are juicy when squished, and when swarms cross the road, they can make the pavement as slick as ice.

Idaho State Police Lt. Col. Sheldon Kelley has responded to wrecks and slide-offs caused by the bug slicks.

“Most people don’t know they are coming” until their car is almost on top of the swarm, he said.

Drivers who see pavement that looks like it is moving should slow down and drive as if they are on icy roads, he said. Police work with transportation officials to post warnings and, if necessary, sand roads fouled by cricket carcasses.

The USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service reports “significantly higher Mormon cricket populations” on federal land in Southwest Idaho, agency spokeswoman Abbey Powell wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

The federal agency says the bugs are also concentrated around Winnemucca, Nev., and sprinkled throughout Oregon, Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and Colorado.

“There isn’t a clear explanation why populations are so much higher this year,” Powell wrote. “We know that populations are cyclical.”

Temperature and moisture are believed to be factors, state agriculture officials said.

“Nobody has really pinned that down, that we know of,” Castrovillo said.

Swarms seem to occur at any given location in cycles of five to 10 years, Knight said. Some expected the cold, snowy conditions in Southwest Idaho last winter would prevent explosive Mormon cricket growth. Heavy snow load in the mountains means many creeks are running that are normally dry, Marschman said, but water doesn’t serve as a breeding ground for crickets. The eggs are laid in the soil.

“I got really excited,” Knight said. “ I thought, great, no more crickets and grasshoppers.”

But the snow might have actually helped insulate the cricket eggs, he said.

Moist conditions in the winter and spring have fueled vegetation growth, providing the crickets with ample food supply.

“We can’t say, ‘Oh, really wet winter, a lot of crickets — but that’s part of it,’ ” Castrovillo said. “Moisture and heat will increase those cycles in the insect world.”

So far this year, USDA has treated about 500 acres of BLM land with carbaryl bait. Knight didn’t have a tally for how much bait the state has provided to farmers but he expects they’ll give out more than last year, when they distributed 89,000 pounds to 138 landowners.

Unfortunately for most farmers, crop insurance doesn’t cover cricket devastation and there’s not much they can do in the aftermath.

“I’m replanting some and hoping some will come up from the roots, but we basically had to cut everything out and get rid of it,” Elias said.

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