Grasshoppers have become an issue too big for individual landowners to manage
Dry soils last fall, adequate snow cover this past winter and a lack of rain this spring have combined in Routt County this summer to create a grasshopper population that is leaping out of control.
A casual stroll through many pastures and public lands in the county often stirs hundreds of the insects into the air, and, unfortunately, it is likely too late to do anything about them this summer.
But Todd Hagenbuch, director and agricultural agent for the Routt County’s Colorado State University Extension Office, said the grasshoppers will lay eggs, which could lead to an exponentially worse situation next year.
There isn’t an official management program to deal with grasshoppers at the county level, with spraying generally coordinated among local landowners, large and small, in an unofficial response.
But after seeing the extent of this year’s problem, Hagenbuch told the Routt County Board of Commissioners on Monday he didn’t believe that patchwork system was working anymore.
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“What is different is that the problem has become so widespread that, in my opinion, it is not satisfactory any longer to have neighborhoods try to coordinate this on their own,” Hagenbuch said.
Grasshoppers are not necessarily a new problem for Routt County, but they become more widespread during and after dry years. They lay eggs in the fall, typically in looser, untilled soil often found in pasture and range land.
The eggs have a better chance of surviving if there is good snow cover and if the winter has generally milder temperatures with few days dipping below zero degrees, both of which happened this winter.
In the spring, the eggs hatch into nymphs that can be very susceptible to spring rains and late frosts. This spring saw neither, setting up what Hagenbuch called a “recipe for disaster.”
The grasshoppers are annoying, but they also can have a real financial impact on the county, especially in a dry year when good pasture and a strong hay crop are hard to come by for local ranchers.
“They eat a lot,” Hagenbuch said. “As agriculture producers are already trying to figure out how to extend the limited amount of forage they have, grasshoppers have come in and further decimated what was already a short supply of grass.”
Hagenbuch said he has seen pastures across the county that will likely have long-term issues because grasshoppers have chewed the grass down so close to the ground.
Longtime local rancher Jo Stanko said they opted not to spray for grasshoppers this year simply because of the added expense — about $8 per acre — in a year when drought is increasing other costs as well.
“We were looking at, are we going to buy spray for grasshoppers or are we going to buy hay for our cattle for the winter?” Stanko said. “We chose hay for the cattle.”
Kathy Stokes said her neighborhood near Deer Mountain sprayed for grasshoppers earlier this year, and for a few weeks, the grass was growing.
“As they start to fly, they came right back over to our property, and our property right now is dirt. There is no grass,” Stokes said. “I’ve been watching these things for years, and there is no way we don’t have an infestation this spring.”
Grasshoppers affect visitors, too, Stokes said.
“We’re advertising out there and taking people’s money and saying come to our beautiful valley, and it ain’t beautiful,” Stokes said.
Oftentimes, smaller landowners are using products from the hardware store, while ranchers are using products approved for very specific applications in agricultural settings, and the effects are not uniform across the landscape.
Stanko said they sprayed hot spots last year, and they looked good to start the year, but her property borders land owned by the Bureau of Land Management and the city of Steamboat Springs, neither of which spray for grasshoppers.
The grasshoppers eventually moved from those public lands to her property, which highlights the need for a broader approach.
“It’s not just the private landowners. We need to find some way to address the public entities to get involved in this problem as well,” Stanko said.
The county is obligated to deal with some things, such as noxious weeds, but it does not have the statutory requirement to deal with pests like grasshoppers. In Moffat County, there is a pest control district funded by property taxes that handles both weeds and other pests like rodents and grasshoppers.
While CSU Extension once unofficially controlled grasshopper management in the county, Hagenbuch said the university has changed over the years to focus more on education and less on providing actual services like spraying for insects.
Hagenbuch suggested grasshoppers could be dealt with similarly to noxious weeds, or county leaders could brainstorm how to launch a coordinated effort to combat the grasshoppers.
“We’ve done an amazing job relying on the good people of Routt County to do the best they can,” Hagenbuch said. “But it is the role of the county government, often, to step up when the people can’t do it themselves any longer. That is the point where we are at.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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