By Addison DeHaven
In June, Jordan Williams, of Brookings, got an interesting request. The operator he was working for just bid on a government contract in eastern Montana and asked Williams if he would help out, possibly for as long as month. Williams, who works for Wilde Aire Services, a crop-dusting company based out of Brookings, said he would do it, but had one question, what kind of contract would they be working on for that length of time?
“Eastern Montana was having an outbreak, so I took one of our planes, we have two, out there to get started,” Williams said. “It was a big job with a lot of work to do.”
In eastern Montana, grasshoppers and Mormon crickets are natural components of the rangeland ecosystem. However, the grasshoppers and crickets populations can reach outbreak levels; when that happens they can cause serious economic losses to U.S. agricultural resources- particularly in warm, dry conditions, according to Gary Adams of the State Plant Health Director for Montana in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) who wrote to the Register in an email.
According to Adams, outbreaks happen every decade or so. The last one occurring in 2010, when 1 million acres of land were treated, protecting 2 million acres.
“This year’s infestation is evolving and won’t be fully realized until later this summer,” Adams wrote. “The current estimates suggest that 2021 treatments be less than those in 2010.”
When Williams arrived in Montana he saw just how bad the grasshoppers were. The first job was in Hardin, east of Billings.
“There were grass strips there (for the airports) but the grass was in poor shape because it was so dry and there were so many grasshoppers there wasn’t really much left,” Williams said. “Every airplane that took off was a dust cloud.”
Williams recalls being at the airport on one of the first days there. It was hot and the grasshoppers looked for shade. Underneath the wings of each plane, grasshoppers were piled on top of each other trying to hide from the omnipresent sun.
“It was solid grasshoppers,” Williams said. “The shadow of the plane was all grasshoppers.”
According to Adams, grasshoppers are counted by density per yard. A rule of thumb for grasshoppers is if there are more than 15 per square yard, they are the point where they can be very damaging. Williams estimates that where he was, it was more like “30 to 40 per foot.”
“The airport grass was so tall and you’d walk into and it was just like a cloud (of grasshoppers),” Williams said. “There were so many, they were everywhere.”
When grasshopper populations reach the level that they need to controlled, the APHIS cooperates with Federal, State, Tribal, and local agencies, organizations, and institutions to conduct surveys and suppression activities to reduce grasshopper damage and protect valuable agricultural resources and rangeland, Adams wrote. The monetary value of rangeland for livestock forage, recreation, carbon sequestration, and other ecosystem services is estimated to be between $10.7 billion to $21.2 billion (according to a 2012 Economic Analysis prepared by University of Wyoming through a cooperative agreement with APHIS).
“Uncontrolled infestations could cause significant economic losses for U.S. livestock producers by reducing forage available on rangeland,” Adams wrote. “That forces producers to buy supplemental feed or sell their livestock at reduced prices.”
It got to the point that the grasshoppers were so bad that they started showing up on doppler radar, appearing as storms or rain on the radar when it was clear as day out.
According to the National Weather Service, this happens because radar sends out electromagnetic waves as short pulses which may be reflected by objects in their path. Weather radar pulses can reflect precipitation or echo off of biological organisms in the air such as birds, bats or insects. If there are a lot of grasshoppers in the air, radar may be able to detect them.
“You’d be flying back to your town from your field and you’d get up to 1000 feet in the air and you’d hit grasshoppers. They’d just hit the windshield,” Williams said. “Not super frequently, but it would happen and they were everywhere. There was just so many of them.”
Williams was contracted to do jobs located in different towns throughout eastern Montana. They would load the planes with fuel and insecticide, with the primary ingredient being Dimlin, at night. In that part of Montana, the sun rises around 4:30 a.m., so Williams would be flying as soon as the sun came up and wouldn’t finish until 10 p.m. when the sun would finally set.
“It was go, go, go,” Williams said. “So much to do in such a short window, we were flying all day, every day.”
Williams would be flying and spraying the product over rangelands, mapped out on massive grids. These included “outages”, where they would stop spraying. End to end was around 38 miles, but they would have spots, like rivers, cattle ponds, and other areas were the spraying would stop. They also had to look out for bees, being careful not to spray where bees were located.
“Beekeepers and their colonies can also suffer losses as well when grasshoppers destroy bee rangeland food sources,” Adams wrote. “Beekeepers are then forced to move their hives or buy alternative food sources to sustain them. They can also experience greatly reduced honey production during these times.”
Williams estimates that he covered a couple thousand acres per job, working alongside a few other pilots. The project took roughly three weeks and covered a large portion of eastern Montana. While the project didn’t eliminate all the grasshoppers, it did (hopefully) work to get the population to a less-destructive size.
Williams noted that in western South Dakota, spraying for grasshoppers is currently taking place.
“I really hope the grasshoppers don’t get that bad here,” Williams said. “That would be tough”