Eastern Oregon tackles giant swarms of crickets with volunteers – and goats

April Aamodt holds a Mormon cricket in her hand at Blalock Canyon near Arlington, Oregon in mid-June. Aamodt is involved in local outreach for the Mormon Cricket Inquiry.

Claire Rush/AP

We are seeing another dry summer in much of central and eastern Oregon. Years of hot, dry weather in these areas have created fertile conditions for swarms of insects like grasshoppers and crickets.

This is bad news for farmers and ranchers already struggling with drought. In 2021 alone, agriculture officials in Oregon estimate that 10 million acres of rangeland in 18 counties were damaged by insects.

Seriously: They’re everywhere.

In this video by April Aamodt, thousands of Mormon crickets roam the streets of Arlington, Oregon.

The population of Mormon crickets has exploded in recent years in Gillam County in eastern Oregon. Today, the Oregon Department of Agriculture supports local volunteers who take action themselves to control pests.

OPB Weekend Edition host John Notarianni recently spoke with Jordan Maley, an Oregon State University extension worker who has organized volunteer efforts to control swarms of Mormon crickets, and April Aamodt, a resident of Arlington, Oregon, who helped lead community pest control.

John Notarianni: I guess fighting crickets was not a responsibility you expected when you joined as an extension officer with OSU. What kinds of problems do these Mormon crickets cause?

Jordan Maley: Basically what happened, in 2017 over the summer, they moved to downtown Arlington. They left the adjacent course areas where they had kind of built themselves. And so, when they showed up in downtown Arlington by the thousands, it was, yeah – we just had to do something new that we’d never done before. And so, we just took up the challenge.

Notaries: And very quickly, Mormon crickets: what’s up with that name?

Maley: It is a misnomer; they are actually one shieldback katydid. It originated in the epidemic in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the 1880s, I believe.

Notaries: April, you earned the nickname “Queen of Cricket” for the volunteer work you did to organize and fight these insects. Why has this become such an exciting project for you?

April Aamodt: When they entered Arlington, they walked up the street. They were walking down the street and they covered my house. And so I had nothing to fight them with.

April Aamodt holds a Mormon cricket she found in Blalock Canyon near Arlington, Oregon Friday, June 17, 2022, while OSU extension worker Jordan Maley, far right, looks over insects on the road.  Both are involved in local outreach for the Mormon Cricket Inquiry.

April Aamodt holds a Mormon cricket she found in Blalock Canyon near Arlington, Oregon Friday, June 17, 2022, while OSU extension worker Jordan Maley, far right, looks over insects on the road. Both are involved in local outreach for the Mormon Cricket Inquiry.

Claire Rush/AP

Notaries: And when you say covered, what do you mean? How many crickets are we talking about?

Amodt: Well, when Jordan says thousands, it’s more like you have a million crickets all over the place. Your whole house is covered, and they crawl up your chimneys. They like a heat source, so they crawl on anything cement. And so when you fight them, try to keep them from getting into your house or laying eggs on your lawn, I always liken them to a tube of lipstick. I actually have a photo where they are the size of a lipstick tube.

I was able to get a knapsack sprayer and sort of calm everything down at my house, and then joined other groups in Arlington after work. We got together and went to help our neighbours.

Notaries: Jordan, do we have any idea why these outbreaks are happening in places like Arlington now?

Maley: They are cyclical, but these mega-cycles of epidemics are usually linked to severe drought. And our current outbreak was at the end of a fairly long drought cycle in north-central Oregon and eastern Oregon.

Notaries: Part of this eradication strategy involves the use of aerial spraying of pesticides. This has raised concerns among some environmental and conservation groups. Last month, the Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a complaint against the USDA agency which authorized the practice. I wonder for you, are you worried about the risks of applying these chemicals to thousands of acres of land?

Maley: Honestly, I’m not. I’m pretty conservative about using pesticides, so I looked into diflubenzuron and, in fact, the recommendation came from the Oregon Department of Agriculture to use it. It is an insect growth regulator. And then, of course, we just do our due diligence. We have a notification system and we work with wind farms. We work with farmers and ranchers. We notify the road service teams because we do not want people present during the spraying operation, even if the material is indicated, by the label, as safe. We just don’t want that to happen.

Notaries: Well, we’ve had a wet and cool spring so far this year. I wonder, in your survey, if this mild spring has had an impact on the cricket populations in your area?

Maley: It delayed things. It’s such an unusual spring. And for Mormon crickets, unlike grasshoppers, a wet and cool spring does not affect them physiologically, but it does delay their development because everything depends on the temperature. So yes, it slowed them down a bit.

Notaries: What is the long term goal here? I mean, do you think you’re going to be able to get to a point where we can actually stop these bug swarms? Or do you think it’s something we’ll have to live with every summer for the foreseeable future?

Maley: Our goal is not eradication. We need to clarify this. I hope it’s not every summer. Hopefully, because we’ve been very proactive since 2017 in trying to manage them, that we could somehow reduce the peak of this outbreak and get back to a steady state of Mormon crickets in the environment, as they are probably for ages. I think we were proactive enough during the period – we did everything. I think we’ll get through this.

Notaries: And you, April: you live with those Mormon crickets every summer. What does the long-term solution to the problem look like to you?

Amodt: I think in the long run, that’s exactly what Jordan was talking about. It’s about being proactive and going out every year and looking for crickets. … We had goats in Arlington and the chickens eat them.

Notaries: Do people selectively procure these animals for the express purpose of eating crickets?

Amodt: Two people did it, and they did pretty well. But it’s a natural way to control them, and if we can do it naturally, we want to do it that way. It’s just when there are so many that there’s no way to control them without using some sort of overhead spray.

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