Grasshopper problems in Routt County another impact of climate change
County has allocated $10k to address the issue this year — the first time ever for such spending
Todd Hagenbuch jokes that the number of people in a room for a meeting about grasshoppers is a clear indication of how big the problem has become. The Routt County Commissioner’s hearing room was packed on the evening of Wednesday, April 20.
The last time there was a community meeting focused on grasshoppers was 2015, said Hagenbuch, director and agricultural agent for the Routt County Colorado State University Extension office. Then, they were already seeing grasshoppers in mid-April.
“We’re in better shape than we have been at this point in time in other years,” Hagenbuch said. “Last week’s cool, wet weather bought us a lot of time.”
It may only be a matter of weeks before grasshoppers appear, though, as elevated populations of adult grasshoppers last fall likely laid tens of thousands of eggs that will hatch this spring, as winter lacked long, sustained periods of cold that can kill eggs off, but had enough snow cover to keep eggs protected.
In some parts of the county there may be as many as 4,000 eggs every square yard, according to counts of last year’s population from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“It’s a climate situation that we are seeing,” Hagenbuch said, referencing hotter and drier springs that are contributing to grasshopper population growth. “We’ve also had hotter, drier falls, which means easier egg production.”
A warming climate — the second half of 2021 was the hottest ever recorded in Colorado — has numerous impacts across the Western Slope, but a surging grasshopper population is one that is somewhat unique to Routt County. A statewide map of grasshopper numbers shows the Yampa Valley is one of the few spots on the Western Slope with significant populations.
“With many insect species we’re seeing changes in behavior,” said Melissa Schreiner, CSU Extension’s only entomologist in the state. “At elevation, you’re getting historically long periods of really cold weather and that’s just not occurring as frequently.”
In 2020, three counting locations in the county saw a density of more than 15 grasshoppers a square yard. Last year, there were 13 sites with that high of a concentration, with one spot along Routt County Road 129 towards Clark seeing 38 of the bugs in a square yard.
Beyond the nuisance of driving, biking or hiking through clouds of hoppers later in the summer, they can devastate forage that is already limited by drought conditions. Grasshoppers generally eat half their weight every day in rangeland grasses.
About 30 pounds of grasshoppers can eat as much in a day as a 600-pound steer, Hagenbuch said.
“When you’re talking about grasshoppers in that number, it doesn’t take a lot to get to 30 pounds,” Hagenbuch said, referencing a video of County Road 44 last June that made the gravel roadway appear alive with thousands of hoppers.
Schreiner said not all grasshoppers are bad, but there are about 15 species that are specifically known as pests for rangeland grasses commonly found in the Yampa Valley. The best way to prevent devastating population surges is for landowners to coordinate spraying and other control methods, she said.
For the first time ever, the Routt County Commissioners have committed $10,000 in Taylor Grazing Act funds to help landowners pay to treat their land for grasshoppers. Hagenbuch said they are potentially willing to spend more, if the need arises.
There are environmental controls like twice-over grazing where cattle are more concentrated on the land that can help, and Schreiner recommending looking for dry, packed down and secluded spots that don’t get much traffic as potential hotbeds for eggs.
Ultimately, grasshoppers need to be sprayed, which is done with products like Dimilin, which is available with appropriate permits, and Carbaryl, which can be applied by the landowner.
At Wednesday’s meeting, participants broke out into groups based on where they live in the county to plan out how they could work together to combat the pest.
Hagenbuch said the county could reimburse landowners that treat for grasshoppers at a rate of $2 an acre, for a minimum of 35 acres. He estimated it costs about $7 an acre total.
The acreage limit is meant to incentivize those with smaller parcels to coordinate with a neighbor to spray. Spraying large parcels like the Yampa Valley Housing Authority owned Brown Ranch is important as well, Hagenbuch said, adding he has reached out to them.
“We’ll have applications available (for reimbursement) after we’ve seen what this grasshopper season is going to look like,” Hagenbuch said. “We don’t want to be paying people to spray their gardens, we want to make sure that we get broad based, large scale spraying.”
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