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EXPLAINER: As wildlife smoke spreads, who's at risk?

EXPLAINER: As wildlife smoke spreads, who's at risk?

BILLINGS, Mont. — Smoke from wildfires in the western U.S. and Canada is blanketing much of the continent, including thousands of miles away on the East Coast. And experts say the phenomenon is becoming more common as human-caused global warming stokes bigger and more intense blazes.Pollution from smoke reached unhealthy levels this week in communities from Washington state to Washington D.C.Get used to it, researchers say.“These fires are going to be burning all summer,” said University of Washington wildfire smoke expert Dan Jaffe. “In terms of bad air quality, everywhere in the country is to going to be worse than average this year.”Growing scientific research points to potential long-term health damage from breathing in microscopic particles of smoke. Authorities have scrambled to better protect people from the harmful effects but face challenges in communicating risk to vulnerable communities and people who live very far away from burning forests.WHY SO MUCH SMOKE AND HOW DANGEROUS IS IT?Decades of aggressive fire fighting allowed dead trees and other fuels to build up in forests. Now climate change is drying the landscape, making it easier for fires to ignite and spread even as more people move into fire-prone areas.The number of unhealthy air quality days recorded in 2021 by pollution monitors nationwide is more than double the number to date in each of the last two years, according to figures provided to the Associated Press by the Environmental Protection Agency. Wildfires likely are driving much of the increase, officials said.The amount of smoke wildfires spew stems directly from how much land burns — more than 4,100 square miles (10,600 square kilometers) in the U.S. and 4,800 square miles (12,500 square kilometers) in Canada so far in 2021. That’s behind the 10-year average for this time of year for both nations, but forecasters warn conditions could worsen as a severe drought afflicting 85% of the West intensifies.Wildfire smoke contains hundreds of chemical compounds, and many can be harmful in large doses. Health officials use the concentration of smoke particles in the air to gauge the severity of danger to the public.In bad fire years over the past decade, infernos across the West emitted more than a million tons of the particles annually, according to U.S. Forest Service research.Scientists link smoke exposure with long-term health problems including decreased lung function, weakened immune systems and higher rates of flu. In the short term, vulnerable people can be hospitalized and sometimes die from excessive smoke, according to physicians and public health officials.When communities burn, the smoke can be especially hazardous. The 2018 fire in Paradise, California that killed 85 people and torched 14,000 houses also generated a thick plume blanketing portions of Northern California for weeks. Smoke from burning houses and buildings contains more toxic plastics and other manufactured materials as well as chemicals stored in garages.WHERE ARE THE FIRES?Almost 80 large wildfires are now burning across the U.S., including 19 in Montana. The largest — eastern Oregon’s Bootleg fire — has grown to 618 square miles (1,600 square kilometers). That’s half the size of Rhode Island, yet fewer than 200 houses and other structures have been confirmed as lost because the fire is burning in a sparsely populated area.More than 200 fires are burning in Manitoba and Ontario, according to Canadian officials.Weather patterns and fire intensity determine who gets hit by smoke. Huge fires generate so much heat that they can produce their own clouds that funnel smoke high into the atmosphere.“It just carries across the country and slowly spreads out, forming sort of this haze layer in the sky,” said meteorologist Miles Bliss with the National Weather Service in Medford, Oregon.The combined plume from Canada and the U.S. largely passed over parts of the Midwest this week before settling to ground level across an area that stretches from Ohio northeast to New England and south to the Carolinas, air pollution data shows.Health effects can occur thousands of miles from the flames. The smoke loses its tell-tale odor but remains a potential hazard even when it drifts that far, said Jeff Pierce, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University.“It’s certainly unhealthy,” Pierce said of the air along the East Coast in recent days. “If you have asthma or any sort of respiratory condition, you want to be thinking about changing your plans if you’re going to be outside.”People who live close to fires are more likely to be prepared and take precautions, while those who live farther away unwittingly remain exposed, according to a recent study by Colorado State University epidemiologist Sheryl Magzamen and Pierce.HOW DO I PROTECT MYSELF?Listen for warnings about smoke and, if advised, avoid outdoor activities to reduce exposure. Keep doors and windows closed, and run an air filter to clean inside air. Face masks can protect against breathing in smoke. As with COVID-19, most effective are N95 masks because they are designed to block the smallest particles.An online, interactive smoke map launched by the EPA and the U.S. Forest Service last year on a pilot basis has drawn millions of viewers. To reach people more quickly, officials are considering using mobile phone push notifications that would alert users when heavy smoke could inundate their communities, according to agency spokeswoman Enesta Jones.——Associated Press reporter Julie Walker contributed from New York.———Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP

US drilling approvals increase despite Biden climate pledge

US drilling approvals increase despite Biden climate pledge

BILLINGS, Mont. — Approvals for companies to drill for oil and gas on U.S. public lands are on pace this year to reach their highest level since George W. Bush was president, underscoring President Joe Biden’s reluctance to more forcefully curb petroleum production in the face of industry and Republican resistance.The Interior Department approved about 2,500 permits to drill on public and tribal lands in the first six months of the year, according to an Associated Press analysis of government data. That includes more than 2,100 drilling approvals since Biden took office January 20.New Mexico and Wyoming had the largest number of approvals. Montana, Colorado and Utah had hundreds each.Biden campaigned last year on pledges to end new drilling on federal lands to rein in climate-changing emissions. His pick to oversee those lands, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, adamantly opposed drilling on federal lands while in Congress and co-sponsored the liberal Green New Deal.But the steps taken by the administration to date on fossil fuels are more modest, including a temporary suspension on new oil and gas leases on federal lands that a judge blocked last month, blocked petroleum sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and cancellation of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada.Because vast fossil fuel reserves already are under lease, those actions did nothing to slow drilling on public lands and waters that account for about a quarter of U.S. oil production.Further complicating Biden’s climate agenda is a recent rise in gasoline prices to $3 a gallon ($0.79 a liter) or more in many parts of the country. Any attempt to limit petroleum production could push gasoline prices even higher and risk souring economic recovery from the pandemic.“He’s walking the tightrope,” said energy industry analyst Parker Fawcett with S&P Global Platts, noting that Keystone and ANWR came without huge political costs because they were aimed at future projects.“Those easy wins don’t necessarily have huge impacts on the market today,” Fawcett said. “He is definitely backing off taking drastic action that would rock the market. … What you’re going to see is U.S. oil production is going to continue to rebound.”Haaland has sought to tamp down Republican concern over potential constraints on the industry. She said during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing last month that there was no “plan right now for a permanent ban.”“Gas and oil production will continue well into the future and we believe that is the reality of our economy and the world we’re living in,” Haaland told Colorado Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn.Interior officials declined further comment on permits issued under Biden.Under former President Donald Trump, a staunch industry supporter, the Interior Department reduced the time it takes to review drilling applications from a year or more in some cases, to just a few months.Companies rushed to lock in drilling rights before the new administration. And in December, Trump’s last full month in office, agency officials approved more than 800 permits — far more than any prior month during his presidency.The pace dropped when Biden first took office, under a temporary order that elevated permit reviews to senior administration officials. Approvals have since rebounded to a level that exceeds monthly numbers seen through most of Trump’s presidency.The data obtained by AP from a government database is subject to change because of delays in transmitting data from Interior field offices to headquarters.If the recent trends continue, the Interior Department could issue close to 6,000 permits by the end of the year. The last time so many were issued was fiscal year 2008, amid an oil boom driven by crude prices that reached an all-time high of $140 per barrel that June.Decisions on about 4,700 drilling applications remained pending as of June 1, which means approvals are likely to continue at a heavy pace as officials work through a backlog left over from the Trump administration, said Fawcett, the industry analyst.Environmentalists who share the administration’s goals on climate have expressed growing frustration as prospects for a ban on drilling fade. They contend the administration could take executive action that would stop further permits but has caved to Republican pressure.“Every indication is they have no plans of actually fulfilling their campaign promise,” said Mitch Jones, policy director for the environmental group Food & Water Watch. “The result of that will be continued and increasing development of fossil fuels on public lands, which means more climate change.”Economists and other experts have been skeptical about how much impact a permit ban would have. Companies simply could shift onto private and state lands and keep drilling, said University of Chicago deputy dean Ryan Kellogg.The administration’s defenders say it’s being pragmatic in the face of a Senate split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans and questions over whether the government could legally stop drilling on leases already sold to companies.That’s meant forgoing a drilling ban in hopes of getting bipartisan support for a huge infrastructure package that includes clean energy incentives and other measures to address global warming.“It’s the long game. … You’ve got to appease some of those oil and gas state senators,” said Jim Lyons, who was deputy assistant Interior secretary under Barack Obama and is now an environmental consultant. “It means jobs back home for thousands of workers. You can’t just pull the plug overnight.”———Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP

US drilling approvals increase despite Biden climate pledge

US drilling approvals increase despite Biden climate pledge

BILLINGS, Mont. — Approvals for companies to drill for oil and gas on U.S. public lands are on pace this year to reach their highest level since George W. Bush was president, underscoring President Joe Biden’s reluctance to more forcefully curb petroleum production in the face of industry and Republican resistance.The Interior Department approved about 2,500 permits to drill on public and tribal lands in the first six months of the year, according to an Associated Press analysis of government data. That includes more than 2,100 drilling approvals since Biden took office January 20.New Mexico and Wyoming had the largest number of approvals. Montana, Colorado and Utah had hundreds each.Biden campaigned last year on pledges to end new drilling on federal lands to rein in climate-changing emissions. His pick to oversee those lands, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, adamantly opposed drilling on federal lands while in Congress and co-sponsored the liberal Green New Deal.But the steps taken by the administration to date on fossil fuels are more modest, including a temporary suspension on new oil and gas leases on federal lands that a judge blocked last month, blocked petroleum sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and cancellation of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada.Because vast fossil fuel reserves already are under lease, those actions did nothing to slow drilling on public lands and waters that account for about a quarter of U.S. oil production.Further complicating Biden’s climate agenda is a recent rise in gasoline prices to $3 a gallon ($0.79 a liter) or more in many parts of the country. Any attempt to limit petroleum production could push gasoline prices even higher and risk souring economic recovery from the pandemic.“He’s walking the tightrope,” said energy industry analyst Parker Fawcett with S&P Global Platts, noting that Keystone and ANWR came without huge political costs because they were aimed at future projects.“Those easy wins don’t necessarily have huge impacts on the market today,” Fawcett said. “He is definitely backing off taking drastic action that would rock the market. … What you’re going to see is U.S. oil production is going to continue to rebound.”Haaland has sought to tamp down Republican concern over potential constraints on the industry. She said during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing last month that there was no “plan right now for a permanent ban.”“Gas and oil production will continue well into the future and we believe that is the reality of our economy and the world we’re living in,” Haaland told Colorado Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn.Interior officials declined further comment on permits issued under Biden.Under former President Donald Trump, a staunch industry supporter, the Interior Department reduced the time it takes to review drilling applications from a year or more in some cases, to just a few months.Companies rushed to lock in drilling rights before the new administration. And in December, Trump’s last full month in office, agency officials approved more than 800 permits — far more than any prior month during his presidency.The pace dropped when Biden first took office, under a temporary order that elevated permit reviews to senior administration officials. Approvals have since rebounded to a level that exceeds monthly numbers seen through most of Trump’s presidency.The data obtained by AP from a government database is subject to change because of delays in transmitting data from Interior field offices to headquarters.If the recent trends continue, the Interior Department could issue close to 6,000 permits by the end of the year. The last time so many were issued was fiscal year 2008, amid an oil boom driven by crude prices that reached an all-time high of $140 per barrel that June.Decisions on about 4,700 drilling applications remained pending as of June 1, which means approvals are likely to continue at a heavy pace as officials work through a backlog left over from the Trump administration, said Fawcett, the industry analyst.Environmentalists who share the administration’s goals on climate have expressed growing frustration as prospects for a ban on drilling fade. They contend the administration could take executive action that would stop further permits but has caved to Republican pressure.“Every indication is they have no plans of actually fulfilling their campaign promise,” said Mitch Jones, policy director for the environmental group Food & Water Watch. “The result of that will be continued and increasing development of fossil fuels on public lands, which means more climate change.”Economists and other experts have been skeptical about how much impact a permit ban would have. Companies simply could shift onto private and state lands and keep drilling, said University of Chicago deputy dean Ryan Kellogg.The administration’s defenders say it’s being pragmatic in the face of a Senate split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans and questions over whether the government could legally stop drilling on leases already sold to companies.That’s meant forgoing a drilling ban in hopes of getting bipartisan support for a huge infrastructure package that includes clean energy incentives and other measures to address global warming.“It’s the long game. … You’ve got to appease some of those oil and gas state senators,” said Jim Lyons, who was deputy assistant Interior secretary under Barack Obama and is now an environmental consultant. “It means jobs back home for thousands of workers. You can’t just pull the plug overnight.”———Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP

Western drought brings another woe: voracious grasshoppers

Western drought brings another woe: voracious grasshoppers

BILLINGS, Mont. — A punishing drought in the U.S. West is drying up waterways, sparking wildfires and leaving farmers scrambling for water. Next up: a plague of voracious grasshoppers.Federal agriculture officials are launching what could become their largest grasshopper-killing campaign since the 1980s amid an outbreak of the drought-loving insects that cattle ranchers fear will strip bare public and private rangelands.In central Montana’s Phillips County, more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the nearest town, Frank Wiederrick said large numbers of grasshoppers started showing up on prairie surrounding his ranch in recent days. Already they’re beginning to denude trees around his house.“They’re everywhere,” Wiederrick said. “Drought and grasshoppers go together and they are cleaning us out.”Grasshoppers thrive in warm, dry weather, and populations already were up last year, setting the stage for an even bigger outbreak in 2021. Such outbreaks could become more common as climate change shifts rainfall patterns, scientists said.To blunt the grasshoppers’ economic damage, the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week began aerial spraying of the pesticide diflubenzuron to kill grasshopper nymphs before they develop into adults. Approximately 3,000 square miles (7,700 square kilometers) in Montana are expected to be sprayed, roughly twice the size of Rhode Island.Agriculture officials had seen this year’s infestation coming, after a 2020 survey found dense concentrations of adult grasshoppers across about 55,000 square miles (141 ,000 square kilometers) in the West. A 2021 grasshopper “hazard map” shows densities of at least 15 insects per square yard (meter) in large areas of Montana, Wyoming and Oregon and portions of Idaho, Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska.Left unaddressed, federal officials said the agricultural damage from grasshoppers could become so severe it could drive up beef and crop prices.The program’s scale has alarmed environmentalists who say widespread spraying will kill numerous insects, including spiders and other grasshopper predators as well as struggling species such as monarch butterflies. They’re also concerned the pesticides could ruin organic farms adjacent to spray zones.“We’re talking about natural areas being sprayed, this is not cropland,” said Sharon Selvaggio, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist now with the Xerces Society, a conservation group focused on insects.Government officials say they will spray pesticides in low concentrations and reduce the area treated by alternately spraying a strip of rangeland, then skipping the next strip. The intent is to kill grasshoppers passing between strips while sparing other insects that don’t move as far.If spraying is delayed and grasshoppers grow larger and more resilient, federal officials could resort to two more toxic pesticides — carbaryl and malathion, according to government documents.Selvaggio said pesticides could drift into areas not being targeted and kill beneficial insects such as bees that pollinate crops. “The toxicity is more than enough to kill bees,” she said. “This is not adequate protection.”Organic farmers are divided on spraying. Some are concerned about losing their organic certification for years if they inadvertently get pesticides on their crops, while others are willing to tolerate spraying out of deference to their neighbors’ problems, said Jamie Ryan Lockman, director of Organic Montana.The trade group isn’t going to challenge the spraying but wants organic farmers protected and for the government to research alternatives to chemicals for future outbreaks.As this year’s crop of grasshoppers emerges, they’re starting to compete with cattle for food in arid eastern Montana, where single ranches can sprawl over thousands of acres (hectares) of private and public rangeland.The grasshoppers start eating tender plants first, then move on to fully-grown plants and the seed heads of grain crops, killing them, said Marko Manoukian, a Montana State University agriculture extension agent in Phillips County. Farmers can collect insurance on damaged crops, whereas ranchers have no recourse when the grasshoppers remove vegetation from public lands.“They are competing against our food supplies,” said Manoukian.A typical infestation can remove 20% of forage from the range and have a $900 million impact, according to a 2012 University of Wyoming study cited by federal officials.At his ranch, not far from the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, Frank Wiederrick is preparing to sell up to 70% of his cows this summer because he fears they won’t have enough feed.The federal government’s grasshopper program dates to the 1930s, when infestations covered millions of acres (hectares) in 17 western states. After locally-led efforts failed, Congress put the agriculture department in charge of controlling the insects on federal rangeland.The last outbreak on a scale comparable to this year lasted from 1986 to 1988. Almost 20 million acres (8 million hectares) were treated with 1.3 million gallons (5 million liters) of malathion, according to researchers.The grasshoppers targeted include roughly a dozen of the hundreds of native species in the West. Drought benefits them in part because it lessens exposure of grasshopper eggs to deadly parasites that need moisture, said Chelse Prather, a University of Dayton insect ecologist.This year’s outbreak will peak in roughly two months, when the insects reach 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.6 centimeters) in length and become so prevalent they’ll start to eat more plant matter than cattle can, Prather said.The grasshoppers start to die down when there’s nothing left to eat, Prather said, “but at that point they’ve probably already … laid their eggs for next year.”———Follow Mathew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP

Western drought brings another woe: voracious grasshoppers

Western drought brings another woe: voracious grasshoppers

BILLINGS, Mont. — A punishing drought in the U.S. West is drying up waterways, sparking wildfires and leaving farmers scrambling for water. Next up: a plague of voracious grasshoppers.Federal agriculture officials are launching what could become their largest grasshopper-killing campaign since the 1980s amid an outbreak of the drought-loving insects that cattle ranchers fear will strip bare public and private rangelands.In central Montana’s Phillips County, more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the nearest town, Frank Wiederrick said large numbers of grasshoppers started showing up on prairie surrounding his ranch in recent days. Already they’re beginning to denude trees around his house.“They’re everywhere,” Wiederrick said. “Drought and grasshoppers go together and they are cleaning us out.”Grasshoppers thrive in warm, dry weather, and populations already were up last year, setting the stage for an even bigger outbreak in 2021. Such outbreaks could become more common as climate change shifts rainfall patterns, scientists said.To blunt the grasshoppers’ economic damage, the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week began aerial spraying of the pesticide diflubenzuron to kill grasshopper nymphs before they develop into adults. Approximately 3,000 square miles (7,700 square kilometers) in Montana are expected to be sprayed, roughly twice the size of Rhode Island.Agriculture officials had seen this year’s infestation coming, after a 2020 survey found dense concentrations of adult grasshoppers across about 55,000 square miles (141 ,000 square kilometers) in the West. A 2021 grasshopper “hazard map” shows densities of at least 15 insects per square yard (meter) in large areas of Montana, Wyoming and Oregon and portions of Idaho, Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska.Left unaddressed, federal officials said the agricultural damage from grasshoppers could become so severe it could drive up beef and crop prices.The program’s scale has alarmed environmentalists who say widespread spraying will kill numerous insects, including spiders and other grasshopper predators as well as struggling species such as monarch butterflies. They’re also concerned the pesticides could ruin organic farms adjacent to spray zones.“We’re talking about natural areas being sprayed, this is not cropland,” said Sharon Selvaggio, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist now with the Xerces Society, a conservation group focused on insects.Government officials say they will spray pesticides in low concentrations and reduce the area treated by alternately spraying a strip of rangeland, then skipping the next strip. The intent is to kill grasshoppers passing between strips while sparing other insects that don’t move as far.If spraying is delayed and grasshoppers grow larger and more resilient, federal officials could resort to two more toxic pesticides — carbaryl and malathion, according to government documents.Selvaggio said pesticides could drift into areas not being targeted and kill beneficial insects such as bees that pollinate crops. “The toxicity is more than enough to kill bees,” she said. “This is not adequate protection.”Organic farmers are divided on spraying. Some are concerned about losing their organic certification for years if they inadvertently get pesticides on their crops, while others are willing to tolerate spraying out of deference to their neighbors’ problems, said Jamie Ryan Lockman, director of Organic Montana.The trade group isn’t going to challenge the spraying but wants organic farmers protected and for the government to research alternatives to chemicals for future outbreaks.As this year’s crop of grasshoppers emerges, they’re starting to compete with cattle for food in arid eastern Montana, where single ranches can sprawl over thousands of acres (hectares) of private and public rangeland.The grasshoppers start eating tender plants first, then move on to fully-grown plants and the seed heads of grain crops, killing them, said Marko Manoukian, a Montana State University agriculture extension agent in Phillips County. Farmers can collect insurance on damaged crops, whereas ranchers have no recourse when the grasshoppers remove vegetation from public lands.“They are competing against our food supplies,” said Manoukian.A typical infestation can remove 20% of forage from the range and have a $900 million impact, according to a 2012 University of Wyoming study cited by federal officials.At his ranch, not far from the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, Frank Wiederrick is preparing to sell up to 70% of his cows this summer because he fears they won’t have enough feed.The federal government’s grasshopper program dates to the 1930s, when infestations covered millions of acres (hectares) in 17 western states. After locally-led efforts failed, Congress put the agriculture department in charge of controlling the insects on federal rangeland.The last outbreak on a scale comparable to this year lasted from 1986 to 1988. Almost 20 million acres (8 million hectares) were treated with 1.3 million gallons (5 million liters) of malathion, according to researchers.The grasshoppers targeted include roughly a dozen of the hundreds of native species in the West. Drought benefits them in part because it lessens exposure of grasshopper eggs to deadly parasites that need moisture, said Chelse Prather, a University of Dayton insect ecologist.This year’s outbreak will peak in roughly two months, when the insects reach 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.6 centimeters) in length and become so prevalent they’ll start to eat more plant matter than cattle can, Prather said.The grasshoppers start to die down when there’s nothing left to eat, Prather said, “but at that point they’ve probably already … laid their eggs for next year.”———Follow Mathew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP

Western drought brings another woe: voracious grasshoppers

Western drought brings another woe: voracious grasshoppers

BILLINGS, Mont. — A punishing drought in the U.S. West is drying up waterways, sparking wildfires and leaving farmers scrambling for water. Next up: a plague of voracious grasshoppers.Federal agriculture officials are launching what could become their largest grasshopper-killing campaign since the 1980s amid an outbreak of the drought-loving insects that cattle ranchers fear will strip bare public and private rangelands.In central Montana’s Phillips County, more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the nearest town, Frank Wiederrick said large numbers of grasshoppers started showing up on prairie surrounding his ranch in recent days. Already they’re beginning to denude trees around his house.“They’re everywhere,” Wiederrick said. “Drought and grasshoppers go together and they are cleaning us out.”Grasshoppers thrive in warm, dry weather, and populations already were up last year, setting the stage for an even bigger outbreak in 2021. Such outbreaks could become more common as climate change shifts rainfall patterns, scientists said.To blunt the grasshoppers’ economic damage, the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week began aerial spraying of the pesticide diflubenzuron to kill grasshopper nymphs before they develop into adults. Approximately 3,000 square miles (7,700 square kilometers) in Montana are expected to be sprayed, roughly twice the size of Rhode Island.Agriculture officials had seen this year’s infestation coming, after a 2020 survey found dense concentrations of adult grasshoppers across about 55,000 square miles (141 ,000 square kilometers) in the West. A 2021 grasshopper “hazard map” shows densities of at least 15 insects per square yard (meter) in large areas of Montana, Wyoming and Oregon and portions of Idaho, Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska.Left unaddressed, federal officials said the agricultural damage from grasshoppers could become so severe it could drive up beef and crop prices.The program’s scale has alarmed environmentalists who say widespread spraying will kill numerous insects, including spiders and other grasshopper predators as well as struggling species such as monarch butterflies. They’re also concerned the pesticides could ruin organic farms adjacent to spray zones.“We’re talking about natural areas being sprayed, this is not cropland,” said Sharon Selvaggio, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist now with the Xerces Society, a conservation group focused on insects.Government officials say they will spray pesticides in low concentrations and reduce the area treated by alternately spraying a strip of rangeland, then skipping the next strip. The intent is to kill grasshoppers passing between strips while sparing other insects that don’t move as far.If spraying is delayed and grasshoppers grow larger and more resilient, federal officials could resort to two more toxic pesticides — carbaryl and malathion, according to government documents.Selvaggio said pesticides could drift into areas not being targeted and kill beneficial insects such as bees that pollinate crops. “The toxicity is more than enough to kill bees,” she said. “This is not adequate protection.”Organic farmers are divided on spraying. Some are concerned about losing their organic certification for years if they inadvertently get pesticides on their crops, while others are willing to tolerate spraying out of deference to their neighbors’ problems, said Jamie Ryan Lockman, director of Organic Montana.The trade group isn’t going to challenge the spraying but wants organic farmers protected and for the government to research alternatives to chemicals for future outbreaks.As this year’s crop of grasshoppers emerges, they’re starting to compete with cattle for food in arid eastern Montana, where single ranches can sprawl over thousands of acres (hectares) of private and public rangeland.The grasshoppers start eating tender plants first, then move on to fully-grown plants and the seed heads of grain crops, killing them, said Marko Manoukian, a Montana State University agriculture extension agent in Phillips County. Farmers can collect insurance on damaged crops, whereas ranchers have no recourse when the grasshoppers remove vegetation from public lands.“They are competing against our food supplies,” said Manoukian.A typical infestation can remove 20% of forage from the range and have a $900 million impact, according to a 2012 University of Wyoming study cited by federal officials.At his ranch, not far from the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, Frank Wiederrick is preparing to sell up to 70% of his cows this summer because he fears they won’t have enough feed.The federal government’s grasshopper program dates to the 1930s, when infestations covered millions of acres (hectares) in 17 western states. After locally-led efforts failed, Congress put the agriculture department in charge of controlling the insects on federal rangeland.The last outbreak on a scale comparable to this year lasted from 1986 to 1988. Almost 20 million acres (8 million hectares) were treated with 1.3 million gallons (5 million liters) of malathion, according to researchers.The grasshoppers targeted include roughly a dozen of the hundreds of native species in the West. Drought benefits them in part because it lessens exposure of grasshopper eggs to deadly parasites that need moisture, said Chelse Prather, a University of Dayton insect ecologist.This year’s outbreak will peak in roughly two months, when the insects reach 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.6 centimeters) in length and become so prevalent they’ll start to eat more plant matter than cattle can, Prather said.The grasshoppers start to die down when there’s nothing left to eat, Prather said, “but at that point they’ve probably already … laid their eggs for next year.”———Follow Mathew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP