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PESKY MORMON CRICKETS ARE BACK - AND MUNCHING

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The grasshoppers are back. But so far agricultural experts said a surge of Mormon crickets in north central Nevada isn't as bad as it was four years ago.

About 300,000 acres in the Battle Mountain and Winnemucca areas are infested with the 3-inch-long grasshoppers, which tend to munch trees, shrubs, flowers - even paint.George Nash of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the bugs are a public nuisance but so far have not destroyed any crops.

"That's the biggest issue with Mormon crickets," Nash said. "They're large insects. They're not very attractive. They have some rather nasty habits - they like to eat each other.

"But as far as agricultural loss, we really haven't seen very much, if any."

Officials are poisoning those that infest areas around homes. For residents, the bugs are a disgusting pain.

"They eat the paint off your house," said Alicia Price of Battle Mountain. "They didn't eat my paint, but they left black marks all over it.

"They ate all the plants and flowers. They're just disgusting and huge."

Sarah Burkhart, who owns a flower shop, said the crickets arrived on Memorial Day.

"There were just jillions of them," she said. "Everybody out there had golf clubs and bats and things they were trying to combat them with."

The grasshoppers were dubbed Mormon crickets after an infestation in Utah years ago.

Depending on the temperature, their eggs hatch in the spring. The crickets grow to adulthood by late summer and usually die in September.

Bob Gronowski, chief of the state Bureau of Plant Industry, said outbreaks in past years have occurred around Winnemucca, particularly in 1990 when millions of the pests swarmed through nearby valleys and across I-80.

At times, bands of insects 2 miles wide and 5 miles long were encountered near Winnemucca.

The insects mate and lay eggs every year, but huge outbreaks of the pests happen only when there is a warm spring.

Cold weather killed off most of the hatch in 1993, but 1994 has proved to be another drought year without the weather needed to keep the insects under control, Gronowski said.

"They hatch out in early spring and become progressively larger," he said. "Right now they're at middle age, at a migrating stage moving in large bands."

Assemblyman John Marvel, R-Battle Mountain, said it appears as if the insects will stay out of the city proper this year.

"I went out yesterday to look, and they've started to head in the other direction," he said. "About a week ago they were moving in the direction of town."

Marvel said he can remember as a child the huge outbreaks of Mormon crickets in northern Nevada in the 1930s.

"This is nowhere like it was then," he said. "But in the outlying areas, some people have beautiful yards, and it's just sickening to see what the crickets have done."