Farmers in the West brace for another drought-related plague: grasshoppers

  • Drought maps show the Western US is at its driest in at least 20 years.

  • Large swarms of grasshoppers, however, are thriving under the dry conditions.

  • Grasshopper infestations could destroy 20% of crops and cause $900 million in damages, according to a University of Wyoming study.

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As the West experiences its worst drought in at least 20 years to 1,200 years, farmers in the region are reporting yet another impasse: grasshoppers.

Montana, eastern Washington, and eastern Oregon are the states most at-risk of infestation, according to estimates from the US Department of Agriculture's 2021 Rangeland Grasshopper Hazard Map. It suggests that the areas average anywhere from 8 to 15 grasshoppers per square yard.

According to a study from the University of Wyoming cited by federal officials, the average grasshopper infestation can destroy 20% of crops, amounting to $900 million in damages.

There are more than 400 total species of grasshoppers, but only about two dozen species are capable of replicating 2020's awful infestation - and they've already made their preparations for 2021.

Grasshoppers reproduce and lay eggs in the Fall, meaning that one summer's outbreak directly begins building the base for the next year's swarm. In response, the USDA recently began spraying 3,000 square miles of Montana with pesticides to kill any remaining grasshopper larvae.

The Western US' drought is already wreaking havoc on farmlands across the region: California's State Water Resources Control Board announced recently that it was shutting off water for thousands of farms until the winter.

"About 2 million acres of California's irrigated farmland, or one out of every four acres, has already had its water supply cut by 95 percent," California's State Water Resources Control Board said. "Another million acres has lost 80 percent of its water supply this year with much of the remaining farmland experiencing cuts of 25 percent or more."

Map of droughts in US from June 2021
A recent drought map of the US shows "exceptional" drought levels in the West. National Drought Mitigation Center

Droughts can be beneficial for grasshopper growth, according to Chelse Prather, an insect ecologist from the University of Dayton. Prather told the AP that drought conditions can dry out the parasites that normally feast on grasshopper eggs, in part leading to larger outbreaks.

Recent USDA drought maps show that the areas that were previously predicted to have high concentrations of grasshoppers are currently experiencing droughts varying in intensity from "Abnormally Dry" to "Extreme Drought."

The grasshoppers are also making it difficult for farmers to feed their animals as the insects are quickly devouring both farmer's tender plants and grain crops, leading some farmers to sell the majority of their livestock.

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