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Mormon crickets devour crops, turn roads "blood red"

A woman looks at a Mormon cricket on her house north of Reno, Nevada.
A woman looks at a Mormon cricket on her house north of Reno, Nevada.

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start quoteYou drive down the street and they pop like bubble wrap.end quote
-- Amy Nisbet, Nevada resident

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (Reuters) -- Mormon crickets, the plague of the western United States, are on the march again, ravaging farms and turning roads "blood red."

Farmer Duane Anderson said the bugs are at times so thick that he could kill 10 crickets with a single step on his 3,200-acre spread in Dog Valley about 100 miles south of Salt Lake City.

Officials in Utah, Idaho and Nevada say this year's infestation may be the worst in recent history.

The grasshopper-like insects have become a traffic hazard, rendering some hilly roads impassable as they become caked with crushed bug carcasses. During one recent drive in his truck, Anderson said he came upon a road that was "blood red from smashed crickets."

But for Anderson and other farmers, the bigger concern is economic. Mormon crickets and grasshoppers have for six years in a row wreaked havoc in Utah and exacerbated the drought of nearly the same duration.

"They've raised hell with my livelihood," said Anderson, 72, who has spent a lifetime farming in the state.

He has already has lost 15 percent of his crops to this year's invasion. In recent years, due to lack of water and sparse crops he also has been forced to cut his herd of cows to 60 from 135.

"Last year I had a total disaster. Nothing was green: the drought, and then the crickets," he said.

Farm losses

This year's cricket infestation already has caused $25 million in damages from lost crops in Utah, officials said. Last month, Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt declared a statewide agricultural disaster based on the triple-whammy of insect attack, drought and high winds.

State officials said a single Mormon cricket, which is actually a katydid, during its lifetime can consume 38 pounds of plants -- targeting everything from sagebrush and weeds to alfalfa and vegetable crops.

Utah has been afflicted by Mormon crickets and grasshoppers throughout its history, as many parts of the state are ideal breeding and hatching grounds.

Mormon crickets were so dubbed after the chewing insects destroyed the crops of Utah's Mormon pioneers in 1848. According to state history, their unrelenting attack was finally shut down by thousands of sea gulls, which answered the religious settlers' prayers by consuming the crickets and sparing their crops.

The crickets make their way across a Nevada road earlier in June.
The crickets make their way across a Nevada road earlier in June.

The insects, which cannot fly, vary in color from light green to red-brown and may grow to 2 to 3 inches in length.

Ravenous adults can cover a mile a day and up to 50 miles in a single season, devouring everything in their migration path, according to the Grasshopper Hotline Web site operated by Utah State University and the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

"It's a serious problem. The crickets eat in the field until it's bare and they they move on," said Jeff Banks, who advises farmers as part of Utah State University's Extension Agent Program.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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