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Climate and Environment

We Hate To Bug You With This, But California's Drought Could Bring A Grasshopper Invasion

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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As the punishing multiyear drought continues across California, we've seen waterways dry up, wildfires decimate and farmers scramble for water. Now there's a new potential problem: a plague of grasshoppers could be heading our way.

Federal agriculture officials are launching what could become their largest grasshopper-killing campaign in the Western U.S. since the 1980s amid an outbreak of the drought-loving insects that some cattle ranchers fear will strip bare public and private rangelands.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has started aerial spraying of the pesticide diflubenzuron to kill grasshopper nymphs before they develop into adults.

So where are all these grasshoppers? Federal officials have a map for that, showing the concentration of grasshoppers per square yard in the western U.S.

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Grasshopper Map.jpg
(Courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture)

So far, California isn't a hot spot, but as the grasshoppers feast and move on to other buffets, does that mean they’re coming here next?

Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture say it's possible, but they haven't yet mapped a progression path for the insects. It's complicated, but a lot of it depends on how effective the pesticides are

Some environmentalists have raised concerns about the program, saying the pesticide will kill spiders and other grasshopper predators, as well as struggling species including monarch butterflies. They also worry the poisons could ruin organic farms near spray zones.

The voracious grasshoppers thrive in warm, dry weather, and populations already were up last year, setting the stage for an even bigger outbreak in 2021. Officials say, if left unaddressed, the agricultural damage from the insects could become so severe it could drive up beef and crop prices.