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California Farmers Fear Land Will Be ‘Stripped Bare’ By Grasshoppers

Dozens of grasshoppers dot a sidewalk in Las Vegas.
Grasshoppers swarm a sidewalk a few blocks off the Strip on July 26, 2019 in Las Vegas.
(Bridget Bennett
AFP via Getty Images)
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Despite one of the largest grasshopper-killing campaigns in the history of the Western United States, California’s multiyear drought has created a climate in which the agricultural pests are thriving.

In some areas, they’ve left farmers with barren fields, which means no food for grazing cattle — and experts fear the problem could get worse.

Deborah Jones lives on a remote patch of land in Northern California, 30 miles from the Oregon border.

“There’s no electricity, there are no school buses, no mail service, nothing,” she said. “You have to get your water from springs, and develop the springs and pipe it. It’s pretty gnarly here.”

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Jones, 70, is accustomed to being self-sufficient. During the summer months, she typically relies on summer grass to feed cattle and livestock. But the hordes of grasshoppers that have been drawn to the area have made that impossible.

“[Grasshoppers] hate shade or darkness ... but now the sun’s out, and they are just everywhere,” she said. “I’ve already had to start feeding hay. The animals won't go out and graze because the grasshoppers drive them insane.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture drafted a 2021 Rangeland Grasshopper Hazard map to track the problem.

“It seems like it coincides with dry weather, drought years, and that’s certainly the case this year,” said David Lile, the Lassen County Director of the U.C. Cooperative Extension. “It also seems like it runs in two or three year cycles ... if you get a bad grasshoppers year, you’re going to have another one for the next two or three, and we’re not quite sure what breaks that cycle.”

Grasshoppers have devoured so much vegetation that many ranchers fear rangelands could be stripped bare.

“Ranchers are already short of forage because of the drought,” Lile said. “They can’t afford to lose more.”

Officials have embarked on an extensive spraying campaign to kill grasshoppers, but the ultimate solution is more complicated than just using more pesticides.

“There are natural controls like birds, because they will eat [grasshoppers], and in most years they are kept under this natural check,” Lile said. “But in these really huge infestation years, there is really nothing that can keep up with the vast number of hoppers.”