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West Braces For Grasshopper Plague

Nebraska agriculture official Rich Reiman knows what a plague grasshoppers can be. Two summers ago, his house was caught in a swarm.

"They were so thick, they were eating holes through our screen doors," said Reiman, who lives along a golf course in the small town of Eagle, just outside the state capital of Lincoln.

This year, he's ready for the pesky insects: Munch-resistant metal screens now cover the windows.

Nebraska and other drought-stricken states to the west are bracing for a grasshopper infestation throughout this growing season. Much of the western two-thirds of the country — from southern California to western Wisconsin — needs rain, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor run by the University of Nebraska.

"The theory is that grasshoppers are more prevalent during drought because you don't have as many parasites and insect diseases during hot, dry weather," said Jack Campbell, a University of Nebraska entomologist.

Cool, wet, spring weather, when grasshoppers are hatching, supposedly keeps the cold-blooded insects in check. They get sluggish, fail to feed and starve to death, Campbell said. That hasn't happened so far this season.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture map for 2004 shows nearly all of western Nebraska seeing at least 15 grasshoppers per square yard. The map predicts similar numbers from central Texas into its panhandle and parts of Nevada, Montana, Oregon and South Dakota.

C.J. Mucklow, Extension Service director for Routt County, Colo., is predicting a more severe grasshopper problem this summer than the state has seen the last two years — and those years were no picnic.

"We had some areas that had as many as 360 grasshoppers in one square yard," Mucklow said. "Anything over 40 is considered severe."

There are dozens of grasshopper species that cover the western states and include varieties prevalent in summer and fall. There are even kinds that prefer cropland and others that like to dine on rangeland.

The only sure way to control grasshoppers is with pesticides, Campbell said.

Most states will continue a moneysaving method of spraying alternating strips of land, said Reiman, who oversees the Nebraska Agriculture Department's plant industry division. The technique is nearly as effective as blanket coverage.

A federal farm program helps states and landowners pay for spraying rangeland. In Nebraska last year, ranchers, the state and federal government each covered a third of the cost of treatment of about 360,000 acres, which ran about $1.95 per acre, Reiman said.

Rangeland owners will probably face higher costs this year because of more demand for treatment, higher treatment costs and reduced state government funding, Reiman said.

Nebraska alone could have as many as 2 million acres that may need to be treated this year, he said.

The Nebraska budget allowed only $127,000 for the treatment program this year — about half of last year's appropriation, he said. Rising fuel costs also are likely to drive up application expenses.

While some have suggested meting out treatment aid on a first-come, first-served basis, landowners likely will be asked to contribute more money per acre to participate, he said.

"It's a big deal in these states," Reiman said. "When you've got that many grasshoppers, a drought and you've got cattle to graze, you have to consider that there's a competition for every blade of grass."

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