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THE DAZE OF THE LOCUSTS

Young is an idyllic little village perched in the central Arizona highlands just below the Mogollon Rim. It's almost too idyllic--just the quiet, cozy sort of place Alfred Hitchcock might have used to make a scary movie about, say, grasshoppers driving the villagers mad.

Well, last summer in Young, grasshoppers really did invade. Clouds of them--brown ones, multicolored ones and giant squishy ones as long as your index finger--turned life into a horror movie for Young's 1,000 residents. To this day, some villagers insist the locusts were so hungry they gnawed away at window screens.

The horror got worse, some residents say, when the state doused the burg last July with the pesticide Malathion, a controversial chemical thought by some scientists to cause nerve damage and behavioral changes in humans.

That prompted angry residents of the unincorporated town to come up with an organic cure for their plague: poisoned wheat bran that knocks 'hoppers silly.

Joanne Williams, the peppery owner, editor and writer of the village newspaper, the Young Gazette, says many townspeople didn't really regain their peace of mind until this summer, when it became clear that the number of hoppers was way, way down.

Which method worked? Depends on whom you talk to.
Williams suspects that the Malathion that was sprayed on Young last year by the Arizona Commission on Agriculture and Horticulture accounted for the deaths of several local cats and chickens and the mysterious illness of one unfortunate resident who was carted off to a Valley hospital in a helicopter.

But Ag and Hort officials say they were only responding to citizens' pleas for help last July when they sprayed with Malathion. "They sprayed people, they sprayed cars, they sprayed streams, they sprayed everything," Williams responds angrily. She says she and about forty other residents were so incensed by what they claimed was the Ag and Hort's sloppy and heavy-handed spraying that they challenged the state to come up with an organic alternative.

When the commission offered no alternatives, the village, inspired by Williams and her fiery, well-researched articles in the Young Gazette, called a meeting last February. At the meeting, state officials, including an Ag and Hort representative, learned about a little spore called Nosema locustae, which kills grasshoppers--and grasshoppers only--and appears to be harmless to other living creatures. Nosema is a one-celled organism that entomologists hide in a wheat-bran bait. When grasshoppers eat the bran, they are poisoned by the Nosema.

Ag and Hort officials weren't impressed with the Nosema, however. So several residents purchased 100 pounds of the poison bran and hand-scattered it this spring.

"We hiked around and applied it to the grasshopper hatching areas," says Williams. When applied correctly, Williams says, the spore kills young grasshoppers and makes adult grasshoppers "a little retarded so you can easily whack 'em with a trowel." This year, Young's grasshopper population is greatly reduced. Williams credits the Nosema and a wet spring.

But Ivan "Tiny" Shields, the commissioner of Ag and Hort, credits last year's spraying of Malathion. Shields, who long has been criticized by environmentalists for insisting that properly applied pesticides won't endanger human health, says, "We aren't convinced that Nosema works in Arizona. It's never been proven." He notes that his agency experimented with Nosema several years ago on the San Carlos Indian Reservation and found it was ineffective. And Shields adds that Malathion is one of the "least toxic" pesticides used.

Williams retorts: "I don't care what kind of adjective you put in front of `toxic' when you're talking about a pesticide. It's still `toxic' if it says it's `toxic.'" She also charges that Ag and Hort botched and intentionally sabotaged the San Carlos experiment with Nosema.

At least one bureaucrat seems a bit more gung ho on Nosema. According to Shields, a Mohave County extension agent from the University of Arizona is "experimenting" this summer with Nosema in the grasshopper-infested netherlands near Colorado City in the Arizona Strip.

Shields says he's following the experiment to see if the agent comes up with anything new. Williams is heartened that Shields is even watching the Colorado City test.

"It took a year's worth of yelling and screaming and bombarding them with data to even get them to pay attention to an organic alternative that the citizens of Young had to locate and make available," she says.

"The struggle seems to be showing Ag and Hort that chemicals aren't the only options.