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Published September 02, 2009, 12:05 AM

S.D. counties to seek aid to fight grasshoppers

At least seven southwestern South Dakota counties are seeking disaster declarations to help deal with hordes of grasshoppers that are devouring hay fields, grass and other livestock forage.

By: Chet Brokaw, Associated Press

PIERRE, S.D. — At least seven southwestern South Dakota counties are seeking disaster declarations to help deal with hordes of grasshoppers that are devouring hay fields, grass and other livestock forage.

County commissions have passed disaster declarations in Bennett, Custer, Fall River, Meade, Mellette and Jackson counties, said Nathan Sanderson, deputy director of policy for the state Agriculture Department. Butte County officials also report they have passed such a resolution.

To qualify for a federal disaster declaration, a county must show a 30 percent loss compared with normal production of a particular crop, such as hay, Sanderson said. State officials will work with Gov. Mike Rounds to send disaster requests to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who would decide whether to approve the counties’ applications.

While the USDA has a variety of aid programs for crop land, it offers fewer kinds of help for western grazing lands, Sanderson said. Assistance for western South Dakota ranchers hit by grasshoppers likely would focus on low-interest loans, he said.

The grasshopper infestation appears to be worse in the southwestern part of South Dakota, with fewer of the pests in northern counties, Sanderson said.

“Everything that I’ve heard is it’s patchy. In some areas, there’s a lot of them. In other areas, there’s not so many,” Sanderson said.

Butte County, which borders Wyoming just north of the Black Hills, is an area that’s been hit hard, said Steve Smeenk, a farmer and rancher who is a member of the county commission.

“Grasshoppers are just about as bad as most people around here have ever seen them,” said Smeenk, 61. “There’s tremendous numbers. The ground moves when you walk.”

If a disaster declaration is issued, it could at least help farmers and ranchers deal with the problem next year, Smeenk said. The last time the area was hit with a comparable grasshopper infestation was about three decades ago, when the second year was worse than the first, he said.

“I think we’re going to have to be ready for them next year because I think next year could be worse than this year,” Smeenk said. “Hopefully, we’ve kind of laid some groundwork to get some programs going early enough next year to help quite a bit.”

Smeenk said he sprayed this year but didn’t do enough early in the growing season.

“All of a sudden, they just exploded,” Smeenk said. “I’ve killed millions and millions of them, but I haven’t killed enough to make a dent. There’s billions and billions of them out there.”

Smeenk said the grasshoppers have stripped the grass on his grazing land, reduced the yield in corn on some irrigated land and damaged the third cutting of hay.

“They keep the hay from starting again, so you don’t get as much. They eat it off. There’s nothing growing there,” he said.

Officials have found more than 60 grasshoppers per square yard in some parts of southwestern South Dakota.

The USDA has reported that much of Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have the worst infestations of grasshoppers this year, but large populations also have been found in North Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona.

The department has set up a program to help protect livestock forage in 17 western states. The federal government covers the cost of spraying federal land, pays half the cost on state land and pays a third on private land.

Even with the infestation, many farmers and ranchers probably are growing more than they did a few years ago when they were hit hard by drought, Sanderson said. Grasshoppers would have caused more damage if it weren’t for this year’s abundant rainfall, he said.