Weather Talk: Grasshopper plagues are gone with the wind

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Anyone who has read the Laura Ingalls Wilder or Rose Wilder Lane stories of life on the prairies in the 1870s and 1880s has been struck by the vision of the terrible grasshopper plagues of that time. These accounts are based in fact. Huge grasshopper plagues once filled the skies across the Great Plains every decade or two, descending to ravage the grain crops of early European immigrants in the 1870s.

In 1874, a swarm estimated at 1 trillion insects infested an estimated 2 million square miles. Strangely, the Rocky Mountain locust, the grasshopper responsible for the plague, never returned in such numbers again and have been extinct since the early 1900s.

Many entomologists believe the extinction was a result of habitat change. The elimination of most beavers and bison from the Great Plains, along with the transition from prairie grass to cropland, likely was enough to fatally disrupt the life cycle of the species. We still get grasshoppers in dry weather, but not the kind that blacken the sky with their numbers.