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Factory whistles blew, every church bell pealed

Onetime mining boomtowns find new life

1965 flood left deep scars along South Platte

For years, brown cloud fouls Denver image

Colorado reputation took hit when state gave its support to Amendment 2

Racist group dominated politics in early 1920s

Roots of state's oldest towns run deep, to south

Depression-era feats include Red Rocks, Lowry

Grazing Act still at work to protect grasslands

Feisty Sabin fought to improve state's health

Dearfield was founded on dryland near Greeley

Colorado only state ever to turn down Olympics

Oil shale collapse preserved scenic vistas

Colorado tour boom began with hot springs

Chicano movement was a turning point for Denver

Springs won fierce competition for Air Force Academy

Griffith answered when opportunity knocked

Freeways opened the state to the rest of U.S.

Denver-to-Durango path winds through mountains

The federal hold on Colorado

Heart attack hit during Eisenhower's Denver trip

'92 Election was fiscal face lift

From the state of flux to statehood

Sowing the seeds of success

Capitalist and humanitarian

Forging farm country

The Ludlow legacy

The Great Locust Mystery

Shining words still sing

The bold move that saved Denver

Utes swept aside by expansion

Ice Palace capped riotous era

The Golden Age of Mesa Verde

'Republic of Boulder' cherishes independent identity

The Great Locust Mystery

Grasshoppers that ate the West became extinct

By Lisa Levitt Ryckman

They devoured saddles, gnawed on ax handles, ate laundry flapping on the line and chewed the wool right off sheep.

When it came to swarms, the Rocky Mountain locust - scourge of the 1870s - still stands today as the undisputed champion of the world. Between 1873 and 1877, Melanophus spretus caused $200 million in crop damage in Colorado, Nebraska and other states, chowing down on everything green and plenty else.

Its sky-blackening swarms hold a place in The Guinness Book of World Records under the heading ``greatest concentration of animals.''

``A swarm of Rocky Mountain locusts that flew over Nebraska on July 20-30, 1874, covered an area estimated at 198,000 square miles (almost twice the size of Colorado),'' the entry reads. ``The swarm must have contained at least 12.5 trillion insects with a total weight of 27.5 million tons.''

And then, in the space of 20 years, it disappeared - the first pest ever driven to extinction.

``I've called this the greatest ecological mystery of all time,'' said Jeffrey Lockwood, a University of Wyoming entomologist who believes he has pretty much solved the case of the disappearing locust. ``Extinction's like a murder. So we've got this 100-year-old murder. And there are no witnesses left.''

But in the 1870s, these swarming grasshoppers appeared in endless supply. The federal government declared the Rocky Mountain locust the ``most serious impediment to the settlement of the West,'' and no wonder. The pest actually brought trains to a halt: Squished bug bodies made the tracks too slick for the cars to move.

Control efforts became desperate. Some areas offered bounties of as much as $5 per bushel of grasshoppers, and there were calls to bring in the Army to fight them. Settlers flooded them, trampled them and drowned them in oil. They even used dynamite, making the locust the only pest ever battled with explosives.

The word ``hopperdozer'' became a catchall term for dozens of contraptions designed to collect or crush the pests.

A government farm report of the time describes a device consisting of a long wire wrapped with burning, oil-soaked rags that could be carried across a field to burn the hoppers. ``The effect is that of a miniature prairie fire,'' the report said. ``This method has been quite satisfactorily used in Colorado.''

Some settlers were more interested in determining the size of the swarm than in stopping it. A Nebraska physician telegraphed points east and west to determine the outer edges of the mass of locusts passing overhead. He calculated their rate of movement and the depth of the swarm to arrive at the figures recorded today in the Guinness Book.

The doctor seemed stunned by his own calculations.

``This is utterly incredible,'' he wrote. ``Yet how can we put it aside?''

The locusts were described in a Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture as a ``terrible engine of destruction'' that reduced acres of crops to stubble like a ``lot of young famished pigs let out to their trough.''

``The day breaks with a smiling sun that sends his ripening rays through laden orchards and promising fields,'' the report said. ``Suddenly, the sun's face is darkened, and clouds obscure the sky. The joy of the morn gives way to ominous fear.

``The day closes and ravenous locust-swarms have fallen upon the land. The morrow comes, and ah! what a change it brings! The fertile land of promise and plenty has become a desolate waste . . . alive with myriads of glittering insects.''

One farmer estimated the number of pests on his acres in the ``billion millions.'' Another said his limited education made accurate calculation impossible, but predicted that when the hoppers hatched, ``they will be right smart, they will be powerful hungry and they will do a heap of damage.''

H. McAllister of Colorado Springs told the commissioner what it was like to be caught in a swarm: `` . . . They circle in myriads about you, beating against everything animate or inanimate, driving into open doors and windows, heaping about your feet . . . their jaws constantly at work.

`` . . . In face of the unavoidable destruction everywhere going on, one is bewildered and awed at the collective power of the ravaging host, which calls to mind so forcibly the plagues of Egypt,'' McAllister said.

One decade, the Rocky Mountain locust was terrorizing the West in swarms that blackened the sky from California to Missouri. But by the turn of the century, it was gone forever - destroyed, many people of the time believed, by their own fervent prayer.

``The last living Rocky Mountain locust was found in 1902,'' Lockwood said. ``It's never been seen since.''

For years, entomologists assumed that such a prolific species could have been wiped out only by some powerful environmental force. But now another theory has taken wing, one that regards the locust's extinction as something akin to a freak farm accident.

The beginning of the end for the Rocky Mountain locust can be traced to its pattern of swarming for a period, then retreating to sandy river beds to breed.

It was at that moment, when its population had collapsed back into its habitat, that farmers began digging up that same ground to plant crops. There are stories of plows bringing up thousands of eggs.

``Western agriculture and the Rocky Mountain locust collided in time and space,'' Lockwood said. ``Through one of the most spectacular coincidences in agricultural history, early agriculture basically destroyed the permanent breeding ground of the locusts.''

Lockwood said that plowing and irrigation, along with the decimation of Indian, bison and beaver populations, all contributed to the ultimate obliteration of the Rocky Mountain locust, a bug only an entomologist could love.

Today, North America is the only continent in the world without a locust.

And because no one expected such a ubiquitous creature to become extinct, very few samples were ever collected. There are fewer than 300 left.

But entomologists know where to find more: frozen in western glaciers - many of which are actually called ``Grasshopper Glacier'' because bug bodies are preserved in them.

And their cousins, such as the Mormon cricket, can give modern Coloradans a sense of the kind of horror the first European settlers faced. The ecological stage is set for another major grasshopper outbreak in the western United States.

``This year, there are going to be 100 grasshoppers per square yard out on the prairie,'' Lockwood said. ``It's pretty amazing to feel them boiling up under your feet.''

June 22, 1999


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