I was wondering
about grasshoppers.
I remember stories from pioneer days
here on the prairie
about how great invasions of grasshoppers
blackened the skies
and consumed crops,
even eating greens stripes out of dresses
hanging on the clothesline.
It seems to me the grasshopper population
increases every year,
so I was wondering what we’re in for.

There are over 400 species
of grasshoppers
and in any area,
several species.
I’ve noticed a variety here.
The great invasions
our ancestors experienced
were of the Rocky Mountain Locust,
a grasshopper that is now,
extinct,
due to habitat destruction
from agriculture and livestock grazing.
As damaging to crops as they were,
that is nothing to cheer about.
Shouldn’t be surprised:
they are a beneficial part
of an ecological system.
Grasshoppers are a natural part
of the grassland system;
they were not “introduced.”
And they have an important role:

Microbes can break down the feces produced by grasshoppers more easily than those produced by larger herbivores, such as cattle or sheep. Grasshopper-generated fecal nutrients are therefore more available for plant production. Also grasshoppers have a shorter lifespan and generally decompose where they die. The nutrients in their bodies return more rapidly to the soil for plant use than do nutrients found in the bodies of livestock. Even when grasshoppers create litter, they are enhancing plant production because increased litter increases the water retention of soils and reduces summer soil temperatures. These phenomena, in turn, enhance plant production by making more water and nutrients available in the semi-arid and arid conditions of the West. In total, grasshoppers may exert a positive influence on rangeland plant production.

Too, say the writers of this report,
grasshoppers offer weed control,
influence plant succession,
provide nutrients.

Grasshoppers are a major food source for other species that inhabit rangelands, especially spiders, reptiles, birds, and small mammals. Consequently, grasshoppers support other biological components of the ecosystem and influence their ability to affect ecosystem functioning.

The decline of grasshoppers also affects other species, especially those that consume them. Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that western rangeland birds have dramatically declined in abundance over the last decade, with the numbers of some species decreasing by as much as 70 percent. Many of these birds feed on grasshoppers as adults, and almost all rely heavily on grasshoppers to provision their nestlings. Therefore, the control of grasshoppers must be considered in a broader conservation perspective than forage production for livestock, protection of threatened grasshopper species, and the maintenance of the ecosystem functions provided by grasshoppers.

With the increasing emphasis placed upon ecosystem management by Federal and State agencies, grasshoppers in the rangelands of the Western United States must be considered in terms of their beneficial actions, not just in terms of their potential to reduce the abundance of forage for livestock. Consequently, pest management cannot be considered in isolation from larger ecological issues. This is especially true when the pest is a natural, coevolved component of the ecosystem, as grasshoppers are in western rangelands.

The point is—
one more time—
we don’t consider a being
a pest
simply because they irritate
or interfere
with humans’ agenda.
We look at their contribution
to the life cycle of the planet
and, when we come upon them,
we understand their contribution
and figure out ways to manage
rather than
control.
In this case,
I’m thinking
more birds!