Native Sun News: Grasshoppers invade the Pine Ridge Reservation
The following story was written and reported by Randall Howell. All content © Native Sun News.

PINE RIDGE, SOUTH DAKOTA –– Twostripes, you’re out: Out chewing on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation’s vegetation – cheat grass, mostly. But this year’s infestation – reported to be the largest in nearly a quarter of a century – is likely to be nothing compared to next year’s prospects.

Of course, that too depends on so many things, according to Bruce Helvig, South Dakota state plant health director. For one, it depends on the number of eggs that survive the first hard frost to await next spring’s hopper hatch.

“This is the worst I’ve seen it in the 24 years I’ve been in the state,” Helvig said, noting that 1985-86 also climbed the charts of hopper invasion history. From there, he backed up into the history of grasshopper plagues in the late1920s and early 1930s.

Nonetheless, Helvig was on the reservation “about two weeks ago” to check out reports that already had predicted a hopper infestation for Western South Dakota this summer.

And, of course, what’s in the middle of Western South Dakota – none other than the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s nearly 4,000 square miles of trust and non-trust reservation land.

At first, Helvig confirmed that reservation residents were seeing – and experiencing – the ravages of a hungry-hopper plague. Later, he referred to it as a “heavy infestation.”

No matter the infestation level, the hopper – known as the all-too-common twostripe (melanoplus bivittautus) has drawn the attention of backyard gardeners, crop growers and rangeland managers alike.

There’s no consistent standard for calling that shot – invasion, infestation or plague, Helvig explained, noting that sometimes it’s just relational. That is, if you have had trends in the five to six hoppers per square yard for 10 years, then this year hit double that for a year or two, indeed there’s a grasshopper plague happening.

On an inspection trip to Pine Ridge a little more than two weeks ago, Helvig said he was actually counting 19 to more than 20 hoppers per square yard. “We’ve already had that level. There are about 90 different species of grasshoppers,” said Helvig, noting that the twostripe variety is among only a handful that manifests itself at that level on the Northern Plains.

“It’s an early-season hopper that tends to mature in midsummer and go out with the cold,” he said. “So, let’s look at the weather. It was cool, rainy and wet – something that contributed to the lush growth of cheat grass (bromus tectorum) and cropland grains.

“Rain continued into the summer, keeping the cheat grass moist for the two-stripers maturing on the rangeland,” he said. “Normally, the twostriper is a cropland hopper, but with the extra growth of cheat grass and the accompanying rains, the conditions were ideal and still are.”

Helvig said the twostriper “really likes green vegetation. Now that they’re in the egg-laying stage (instar stage), the conditions are ripe for an even bigger hatch early next spring.”

He said that not much insecticide was being applied across the reservation this season, but that some sky-tractor spraying activity was occurring in the Hot Springs to Edgemont region.

Handling complaints and fielding inquiries at his office in Pierre, Helvig said they came from backyard gardeners as well as rangeland cattle raisers, plus some crop growers.

“The twostriper tends to prefer cropland; but with a lush crop of green cheat grass on the reservation this season, they stayed out and visible,” said Helvig, who also explained that the twostriper often moves into cropland from rangeland-like borders and edges, such as roadsides and ditches.

With numbers into the mid-20s per square yard, the Pine Ridge green-thumbers are seeing their village gardens decimated by the voracious twostriper. Conversation about the table-value of “fresh greens,” such as cucumbers and early-summer yellow squash came easy recently as elders lamented the lack of Pine Ridge summertime garden-green delicacies.

Two weeks ago, at a table set up in the ground floor entry of the OST Tribal Council building few – in that heavily-trafficked area – left or entered without accepting and/or sharing zucchini, cucumbers and, of course, also banter about when in the world fresh, garden-grown, off-the-vine tomatoes would be ready.

“Buzzzzzz, right to the ground … grasshoppers got it all,” one middle-aged male Pine Ridger was overheard telling a female elder about his garden. The hearing-challenged elder seemed to immediately understand when the man swept his arm, palm down, in a semicircle to indicate the twostripers had “taken it all.”

“Everything but the onions,” he added. “You got onions?” she asked. “I want onions, tomatoes and cucumbers – little cukes. I’m going to make some pickles. Can’t find little cukes.”

They both laughed as others joined in quick snatches of “village market” conversation. Soon the truck-garden table was empty, as workers sped home – or elsewhere – for their lunch breaks.

“Usually, as I said, the twostriper is more attracted to cropland,” said Helvig, who is a rangeland specialist when it comes to healthy biosystems. And, he doesn’t do gardens, nor communities.

However, he did say that this year’s twostriper population likely has something to do with a strong sweet clover crop last season – a season with a late fall that allowed more egg-laying than some years have had.

“With a bumper year for sweet clover as feed, that allowed the twostriper to build a very high number of eggs” for this season, Helvig said, explaining that the twostriper got its name because of the two yellow “racing stripes” along its back.

A drought will kill them (twostripers) back, according to Helvig, who said that the ground-water level has been good this year on the reservation, another factor that contributes to the hopper’s migration into or steadfastly staying in rangeland.

However, Helvig is quick to point out that twostripers are hoppers without borders.

He said that sometimes 10 hoppers per square yard is the “threshold” for a twostriper epidemic. Helvig said the twostriper may dominate the hopper population on the reservation, but “there’s about a dozen different species” out on the rangeland this time of year.

“We’re past that number and have been for awhile,” he said. “This definitely is one of the worst years we’ve ever had. And they move from trust land into cropland.” Helvig said the weather has been ideal not only for the twostripers but for potential rangeland fires.

“We had a tremendous upswing in grass on the rangeland this year, so we can look for high numbers of hoppers again in 2011, plus some real hotspots,” Helvig said.

“However, if you’ve got enough grass on your rangeland to feed both the grasshoppers and your cattle, you really haven’t much of a worry,” he concluded.

Unless, of course, you’re among those traditional elders who can can’t find a harvest of “little cukes” to meet your fall pickling plans.

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