Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Rocky Mountain Locusts in US History

Environmental & Science Education, History, History of Science, STEM, Society, Nature, Wildlife, Extinction

The cloud was hailing grasshoppers. The cloud was grasshoppers...The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air and they hit the ground and house with the noise of a hailstorm. Laura tried to beat them off. Their claws clung to her skin and her dress...Laura had to step on grasshoppers and they smashed squirming and slimy under her feet...In the plum thickets on plumpits hung to the leafless branches.--On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder

Ed Hessler

I finished a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser). It more than satisfies my criteria for a great biography: a map, excellent index, deeply and impeccably researched, photographs, unsentimental, probing, beautifully written and, in addition it is also a major contribution to environmental history. 

I've never read any of Wilder's "juveniles," as children's literature was first called but have thumbed though several of the Little House series, some slowly and others quickly.

In June 1875, according to Fraser, Laura's father "was gloating over a "bumper crop of wheat,,,as the family sat down to dinner...they heard...their neighbor Olena Nelson...screaming, 'The grasshoppers are coming! The grasshoppers are coming!" This was another Wilder family life-changing event, one filled with disaster, calamity, debt and often hunger. Wilder's father eventually sold his horses "leaving the money with his wife." He walked the 200 miles from Plum Creek to SE MN to work.

However hard it is to believe, in just 27 years (1902) the Rocky Mountain Locust would be extinct. I want to say a few things about that and the insect based on a recent issue of  The Kansas School Naturalist (KSN). It was written by by Jeffrey Lockwood (University of Wyoming) who wrote Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the Frontier 

This issue of KSN is not yet available on-line so you may want to check the KSN home page to see whether it has been posted. I think KSN is a treasure. If you are interested request a copy and if it is in stock, a copy will be sent.  The scope of this 13 page publication is impressive as is the response. Gleanings from the KSN publication follow.

Locust Biology
-Life cycle and development
-What is a locust
-What causes phase change?
-Where are locusts found?

Rocky Mountain Swarms
-Where did warms originate?
-How high did they fly?
-How far did the locust spread?
-What was the largest swarm?
-What was it like when a swarm arrived?

History of The Rocky Mountain Locust
-Who studied this locust scientifically?
-Where can you still see them?
-Had the locust always been a pest?
-How serious was their damage?
-Did outbreaks follow a regular pattern?

Knowledge is Power
-Biogeography of the Rocky Mountain locust
-The hazards of misidentification
-Debunking locust myths
-The importance of natural enemies
-Foundations of integration pest management

Pioneer Ingenuity
-Bounty systems
-Cultural control approaches
-What about insecticides?
-Mechanical inventions
-A radical and practical solution

The Extinction
-Was the locust really gone?
-The alfalfa theory
-The bison theories
-The Indian theory
-The bottleneck theory

The Locust and Culture
-The need to do something
-How the locust changed US agriculture
-The role of religion
-The Mormons vs. the locusts
-The role of government

How the Locust Shaped History
-How did ecosystems change without the locust?
-How the locust helped form the USDA
-Understanding natural disasters
-The locust in American literature
-A locust opera

Lessons From the Rocky Mountain Locust
-The importance of sanctuaries
-The (im)balance of nature
-Even abundant species are not safe
-How should we value a locust?
-What if?

--The scientific name is Melanoplus spretus, respectively calling attention to their black armored exoskeleton and that the locust is scorned.

--Unlike grasshoppers locusts have a swarming phase--they are solitary and gregarious. In the latter phase their behavior changes. See Wiki. Locusts currently occur on every inhabited continent except North America.

--Locust swarms originated in well-drained river valleys of the Rocky Mountains. Finding this refuge required considerable detective work.    

--During an outbreak more than  half of the U.S. and most of the Canadian prairies could be affected. The 1875 warm was a large one--110 miles wide moving northward continuously for five days (198,000 square miles and an estimated 3 l/2 trillion locusts

--The US Entomological Commission was charged with reporting on he depredations of the Rocky Mountain locust and practical means of preventing it recurrence or guarding against invasions. Of the three members, Charles Valentine Riley would become the most influential economic entomologist of the 19th century.

--There are 487 specimens of the RM locust in insect collections across the nation. Other places include the glaciers of the Rocky Mountains which has several ice fields named for them. As the ice melts due to global warming locusts are being washed out, not just a few but in enormous, rotting piles.

--Locusts swarmed long before European settlement--archealological evidence indicates swarms occurred at least 5000 years before the present.

--Outbreaks  were not cyclic-- essentially randomly driven by irregularities of weather. The outbreaks could last 1-3 years before subsiding.

--Pioneers were quite ingenious in their attempts in dealing with them although the solutions were ineffective. Bounty systems, cultural control approaches (flooding, plowing, harrowing, ditching which served as pitfall traps), a range of chemicals, mechanical inventions to mash, harvest them, even a flamethrower, even culinary uses. One of the mechanical devices invented is shown on the cover of the publication. It was called the "hopperdozer."

--Their eventual extinction was the subject of a variety of hypotheses but only one has come to be thought as the likely reason. During locust recessions, RM locusts were restricted to what is called the Permanent Zone. It served as an ecological bottleneck. These mountain valleys were being converted to agriculture. The plowing, irrigation, grazing, harrowing, flooding, and trampling occurred when the insect was most vulnerable. The Rocky Mountain locust succumbed to unwitting habitat destruction!  

--Lockwood's book on the Rocky Mountain locusts is the basis of his libretto for Locust: The Opera. This chamber opera premiered in 2018. 

Many thanks to Dr. Lockwood and the Kansas School Naturalist.

Wilder's life included locusts, recessions, dust and politics that influence the US forever. So it was natural to read next a book about the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. Two great books--two great environmental histories--and two I'm very glad I read.

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