Tuesday, January 31, 2023
Jan. 31, 2023

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Hungry Mormon crickets invade north-central Oregon

Farmers, residents mount defense to save crops, gardens


SALEM, Ore. — An infestation of voracious Mormon crickets in the Arlington area of north-central Oregon has residents scrambling to protect farm fields and home gardens.

Ione resident Alison Ogden said people in Arlington have spent thousands of dollars battling the bugs on their own over the past couple of weeks. “Some people don’t have air conditioning and can’t even open their windows for fear the bugs will enter homes,” she said in an email to the Capital Press.

Ogden said she and her husband, Jarrod, farm a few miles east of town, and anxiously check the crickets’ presence every day. She said the pests could do significant damage to their crops. “And because we have millions of leaf cutter bees working in the alfalfa seed fields, spraying insecticide is not an option,” she wrote.

Townspeople met with state agriculture and Oregon State University Extension representatives June 16, and OSU Extension Agent Jordan Maley set up a Facebook page on which people can share information and tips for countering the insects.

Entomologists hasten to say the insects are neither Mormon nor crickets, but rather a grasshopper relative called the shield-backed katydid. The more common name dates to when the pests leveled the crops of Mormon settlers in the Salt Lake area of Utah in the 1800s.

By either name, they can overwhelm lawns and gardens and decimate fields and pastures. They don’t fly, but grow up to 3 inches long and hop and crawl in mass formations that can be startling. Some residents have taken to spraying insecticide themselves and there’s talk in Arlington of burning evergreens this winter to destroy eggs, although the OSU Extension agent hasn’t recommended that. At least one visitor to town was reportedly catching Mormon crickets to sell as fish bait.

The outbreak has long-time residents recalling the infestation of 1942, when Mormon crickets reportedly covered Highway 19 “absolutely solid day after day” for four miles south of town.

Dick Krebs, 89, said the infestation was knocked down by spreading poison bait by airplane. He said the plane landed on his family’s ranch to take on loads of bait, which came in burlap bags. He, his father, John Krebs, and his older cousin, Henry Krebs, helped dump the poison into a hopper inside the plane.

“It was quite an operation; I was on the sack end of things,” Dick Krebs said.

The aerial applications worked, and a follow up ground campaign did the trick. Arlington hasn’t had a serious problem with Mormon crickets for 75 years, although they’ve always been in nearby Blalock Canyon, Krebs said.

He said the infestation isn’t that bad at his ranch south of town. He and his wife go out with shovels and crush about 40 a day, he said.

Area wheat farmer Walter Powell said he was driving near Arlington recently and “All of a sudden it was like the road was moving” there were so many bugs crossing.

He joked that they also affected play at the annual wheat growers’ tournament at China Creek Golf Course in Arlington. On the fifth green, Powell said, players had to clear insects from their putting lines.

He said Mormon crickets will eat anything; during the golf tourney, he saw some eating companions that had been crushed by golf carts.

“They’re cannibals,” Powell said.

That’s true, said Helmuth Rogg, an entomologist and director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Plant Program Area.

Rogg said the insect’s cannibalistic nature may explain its fabled marching behavior, in which hordes of Mormon crickets move en masse. Ones that falter or get injured are fair game for those coming along behind, “They move on so they don’t get eaten,” he said.

But Rogg said their presence in the area is not a new phenomenon. The insects thrive in the sage country around Arlington, he said.

“It sounds like now Mormon crickets are marching into town,” he said.

Maley, the OSU Extension agent for Gilliam County, said the outbreak has been building for the past two or three years and might be more serious than Rogg realizes.

“Plus they’re creepy,” Maley said. “They’re the ugliest insect I’ve ever seen.”

He said treatment options this summer may be limited. Maley hopes to meet with large landowners over the winter and plan a spring campaign against the bugs. He said an integrated pest management approach is the best control method.