Rural Routt neighbors banding together to thwart hungry hoppers

Tom Ross
Residents of some rural neighborhoods north of Steamboat are organizing this spring in an attempt to head off a grasshopper infestation.
file photo

— Grasshoppers are not supposed to hatch in April. At least, not at 7,000 feet elevation in the Rocky Mountains. But that’s what has taken place in Routt County in the early spring of 2015. And now, residents of rural subdivisions just north of Steamboat Springs are throwing in with farmers and ranchers and working on a strategy to deter an infestation of the insects that feed voraciously on hay crops and garden plants alike.

Donine Schwartz, a resident of Deer Mountain Estates, just off Routt County Road 129, said all but a couple of property owner among 63 in her neighborhood are on board to spray emerging grasshoppers with a pesticide, Dimilin, which is reportedly safe for humans and pollinators, like honey bees, but can put aquatic insects at risk. Schwartz is particularly impressed that absentee homeowners are embracing the plan.

“I spoke to one Deer Mountain landowner who lives on Long Island, one who lives in Redmond, Washington, and one who lives in California,” Schwartz said. “They really wanted to pitch in once they learned the situation.”

Colorado State University entomologist Bob Hammon spoke to local property owners in late April about the need to collaborate and coordinate in order to discourage the large numbers of grasshoppers expected to hatch and spread out in parts of Routt County this summer. He said Wednesday that what he saw during a field trip during that visit was an eye opener.

“I was shocked to see the numbers of those little grasshoppers in micro climates — up against warm buildings,” he said. “They’re not supposed to be hatching in April at 7,000 feet … I’ve been an entomologist going on 40 years, and insects never cease to amaze me. There’s always something new, like grasshoppers hatching at 7,000 feet in April.”

Neighbors in the Elk River Estates area are also participating in the effort to coordinate a spraying effort, but not all residents at the two subdivisions are on board.

Nancy Wall, who rents a home in Elk River Estates, said she received an email asking her to contribute a small amount of money to the spraying effort, but she thinks people who want to take that step should do so on their own property.

“Everyone has pets and kids in their yards. People have gardens, and the people across from us keep bees,” Wall said. “I don’t want my cat eating insects covered in pesticide. And I’m worried it will get into the water. Even if it is safe, it’s not natural. If people want to do this in their own yards, they should go to the store and buy some. It’s not that hard to do.”

Routt County CSU Extension Agent Todd Hagenbuch said he’s also received calls from property owners in HIlton Gulch, south of Steamboat, and from ranchers west of town on Twentymile Road who are interested in a preemptive strike against the grasshoppers.

City of Steamboat Springs Public Works Director Chuck Anderson said Wednesday he is studying the costs and issues related to spraying insecticide, while looking closely at undertaking grasshopper control measures at Steamboat Springs Airport, just a couple of miles away form Deer Mountain Estates.

Hammon said the mild winter advanced a lot of things in the natural world, including the time period when different species of grasshoppers hatch. He explained that hatching period for grasshoppers is highly dependent upon subsurface soil temperatures.

“Soil temperature is critical,” he said. “That’s where the eggs are down in the soil.”

Hatches among different species of grasshoppers vary by temperature, spreading out the hatch and resulting in each species occupying a slightly different ecological niche. While the hatched “nymphs,” about the size of a pencil lead, are sensitive to moisture, they can survive freezing temperatures, Hammon confirmed.

The current wet May weather is apt to slow the young grasshoppers down, Hammon said, but “it’s not going to stop them.”

Hagenbuch and South Valley resident Carol Iverson have been out doing early counts of juvenile grasshoppers and collecting some specimens. Iverson works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and spends her summers in the field, counting the numbers of grasshoppers within plots of land measuring a square yard all over Northwest Colorado.

Hagenbuch reports that, when grasshopper counts exceed 10 to 20 per square yard in a hay field, for example, those numbers are sufficient to cause crop damage. Iverson told Steamboat Today in late July 2014 that she had visited numerous areas over the summer where grasshopper counts were well above that threshold. But the areas with the worst grasshopper infestations in Routt County were widely spread.

Hammon said community efforts are most effective when large landowners are involved.

“It’s a challenge, and everyone in the community has been motivated, but it’s much harder when you are dealing with a lot of small parcel owners,” he said. “It has to be done on a large, area-wide basis. If you have five acres surrounded by thousands (that don’t treat grasshoppers), you’re going to lose the battle.”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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