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TODAY’S FOCUS: Black Clouds of ’Hoppers Invade West

July 3, 1985

HELENA, Mont. (AP) _ John Stratford and Bernt Ward are among thousands of Western farmers facing economic disaster borne by hordes of grasshoppers fattening themselves on already drought-stressed crops.

Hundreds of the insects leap with every step a disgusted Stratford takes through a devastated field of wheat.

″I won’t have to harvest, way it looks,″ he said.

For Stratford, a Billings area farmer, the grasshopper invasion is the second setback in the last year. Severe winter weather killed the crop he planted last fall. The spring crop he replanted is being devastated by the hoppers, despite the spraying of hundreds of acres.

Ward, a Sheridan County commissioner, said he reseeded 110 acres of spring wheat because of the grasshopper damage. The insects then ate the reseeded field ″... as fast as it came up - they really like the tender, juicy stuff.″

Ward, who has been farming for 24 years near Westby just south of the Canadian border, said the damage was the worst he had seen.

Weather conditions over wide areas of the West have helped spawn one of the worst recorded outbreaks of grasshoppers. The hotter and drier it gets, the better the grasshoppers like it.

The infestation is called the worst in memory in Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, western North Dakota and drought-affected areas of South Dakota. Other states reporting problems include Nebraska, Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington.

The federal government, which has released a total of $25 million to spray rangeland, said ″severe infestation″ exists when at least eight grasshoppers are concentrated per square yard. Some areas in Idaho, Montana and Colorado have reported more than 100 hoppers per square yard.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary John R. Block recently called the grasshopper invasion a ″very serious threat to Western agriculture.″

Farmers fear the worst may yet be coming as the latest ″hatches″ mature, get hungry and go crop hunting.

Idaho began spraying a month ago, but spray planes haven’t been able to keep up with the onslaught. So far an estimated 3.5 million acres of a total of 5 million acres have been sprayed, an effort which officials have estimated will cost $3 per acre. In some cases it’s too late to avert this year’s damage but they hope to stunt next year’s ″hopper hatch.″

Keith Kelly, Montana’s agriculture director, said the grasshoppers are growing and moving to find any green crop, including grass, weeds, grain and hay.

Kelly said some farmers can’t affort to invest more money in poor crops to save them from grasshoppers. It costs from $2 to $6 an acre to spray; some farmers have had to spray fields three times.

The infestation has become a ″double-edged sword,″ according to George Algard of Montana’s agriculture department. In drought areas where crops generally are the worst, so are the swarms of grasshoppers.

In western North Dakota, state entomologist Bill Brandvik said grasshoppers had infested some 700,000 acres of rangeland in four counties with concentrations as high as 300 per square yard.

In South Dakota, most of the problem counties are west of the Missouri River. Jim Krsnak of the state’s agriculture department in Pierre said an estimated 3 million acres of rangeland will be infested.

Officials said they hoped to spray up to 1.1 million acres in Utah over the next month. ″Some of the areas we are spraying or that we are going to spray have as many as 100 or more grasshoppers per square yard,″ said Tom Crowe, officer in charge of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service.

The Wyoming spray effort may extend to more than 2 million acres, officials said. Walter Patch, director of the plant industry section of the state agriculture department, said it was the ″worst grasshopper year we’ve had in Wyoming.″

Eastern Wyoming has experienced the most serious infestation, but problems have been reported in 13 of the state’s 23 counties.

Colorado farmer Bob Arpke of the Loma area said the grasshoppers are ″just clouds in some fields. I’ve seen them this bad once before, back in the ’30s.″ Colorado officials said every non-mountain county either has or will have a big grasshopper problem this year.

In Oregon, the situation is the worst since 1979. Agriculture Department spokesman Dalton Hobbs said the infestation so far is confined to five eastern rangeland areas covering about 530,000 acres.

In Washington, the infestations are spotty because of a heavy freeze in mid-April. Terry Ely, plant quarantine officer for the USDA at Ellensburg, said the freeze came as the migratory grasshoppers were in the midst of emerging but ″we’re keeping a close eye on″ many areas.

An agricultural official in New Mexico said the state’s ranchers who attended a recent federal program on spraying ranchland decided not to participate because they couldn’t afford it.

Officials said the problems could be even worse next year, when the offspring of billions of grasshoppers mating this year appear.

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