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Crickets starting to die off

But destructive creatures leaving a legacy: eggs

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At the Vernon Beef Project, a ranch in Tooele County's Rush Valley, no one is home on a Wednesday morning. The residents of two homes there are out moving cows — you can hear some in the distance. But something else is noticeably absent from this scene.

Next door is a lush green alfalfa field — not a cricket in sight. Just down the way on Sharp Road, a flock of seagulls hangs out in a field — but not a grasshopper is to be found.

The Mormon crickets and grasshoppers that have been plaguing rural Utah towns, farmers and ranchers are beginning to die off naturally.

Places like Vernon have done their best — without much outside help — to keep populations confined to foothills and mountain ranges and out of their fields. The town got together and sprayed private lands. It worked in town, but the bugs are still out there, still hatching, still eating up valuable rangeland intended for livestock.

Most of the damage is done in many places throughout Utah. But both species are leaving something behind — eggs. That has residents in the hinterlands of Tooele, Juab and Millard counties dreading next spring when a new hatch could mean even larger numbers in 2002. With another mild winter and little help from state and federal governments, the impact could be far-reaching.

The problem was so bad this year that the state Department of Agriculture asked the Department of Environmental Quality and other state agencies to investigate the possible health risk of cricket and grasshopper infestation. Gov. Mike Leavitt signed a Declaration of Agricultural Emergency in June.

Emergency meetings have been held in small towns, and another is planned for Friday in Oak City. Damage from the insects is expected to exceed $25 million, affecting 1.5 million acres of Utah lands. This year, the federal government allotted only $100,000 to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to treat BLM lands that abut private grazing and farm land.

Greg Abbott, plant protection and quarantine officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Plant Health Inspection Services, says opposition to spraying on U.S. Forest land has worsened the problem. He says spraying does not have an adverse effect on wildlife habitat — environmentalists disagree.

Bugs in Utah's heartland

Leaving Vernon Wednesday south on U-36, a few crickets show up along the road. Before reaching U-6 to Eureka, signs of the insect come and go.

In Eureka, Steve and Linda Turner, owners of Linda's Summit Cafe, are at first reluctant to talk to another reporter about bugs.

The crickets seemed to have circled the city, laying eggs on the outskirts. Some ventured onto domestic lands, causing headaches here and there. The Turners are already worried about next spring.

Poisoned bait to fend off the pests was hard to come by this year. Recently, the resident seagulls have seemed more interested in the city's dump — and when they have dined on crickets in certain areas, there were so many that some birds overate and were reportedly unable to fly right away.

Headed west on U-6, stains and remains of crushed crickets are visible all over the road. Once inside Millard County, grasshoppers show up along the highway. In Oak City's Country Crossings, owner Scott Wright says the road to Oak Creek Canyon in Fishlake National Forest was black with crickets this year.

Some of the city's water supply comes from Oak Creek Canyon. Rotting bugs ended up in the city's new distribution system, tainting the water. Wright's bottled water sales went up.

Without the government's help, "We have no fighting chance against them," Wright said. Oak City Mayor Michael Anderson was in Washington, D.C., Thursday and testified before a House subcommittee on National Parks.

A short trip up the canyon reveals black crickets everywhere, munching on grasses, laying eggs, dying off.

But they'll be back.

E-MAIL: sspeckman@desnews.com