Millions of Jaws Biting and Chewing

John Tuma-smaller pic“Millions of jaws biting and chewing” – Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek

In the classic pioneer tales by Laura Ingalls Wilder, she gives witness to the great invasion of Rocky Mountain Locust in southwestern Minnesota between 1873 and 1877. There is still great debate to this day as to what caused the population explosion of these flying grasshoppers and the reasons they invaded southwestern Minnesota. What we do know is that these aerial invasive species caused massive damage to Minnesota’s grain fields. 1876 was one of the worst years when the locust descended on 40 Minnesota counties, laying over a half million acres of crops bare.

In reality these winged eating machines were not new to Minnesota. Most scientists and historians noted their prior visits to Minnesota were only brief and not in massive numbers, but things changed starting on June 12, 1873 when the first massive cloud swept in from the west. It may have been the growth of cultivated fields or the many new crops they could now devour that caused the locust to start swarming in great numbers. There were stories that in some areas that their carcasses would be a foot deep on the roads, causing them to be impassable for horse and buggy.

As you can imagine farmers started to do everything they could to attack the menace, such as digging ditches and filling them with coal tar to burn when the approaching hordes were seen. They created devices like the “hopper dozers” which was sheet metal covered with molasses that they would drag through the field to catch the locust. Most efforts were only a drop in the bucket and not successful.

Three Minnesota governors and several legislative sessions would spend many fretful hours discussing how to attack the problem. The last of these governors was John S. Pillsbury, whose family’s milling business was directly affected by this crisis. He opposed direct aid to farmers, but instead instituted a bounty system paying individuals who destroyed bags of grasshoppers and requiring every able-bodied man in affected counties to spend one day a week of destroying the little marauders’ eggs.

As quickly as the swarms arrived in 1873, they disappeared by 1878. Some attributed this to a late April storm in 1877, but the more likely scenario is a population crash due to disease spurred on by the population explosion. The struggle faced by policymakers in the 1870s appears to only be the beginning of the many struggles our state policymakers would face dealing with invasive species. This year the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council  (LSOHC) is struggling with the question of whether to use Legacy Amendment dollars to deal with the latest invasive species attacking our precious lakes and rivers. In particular the zebra mussel and the Asian carp, as they feed on enormous amounts of plankton and destroy the food supply for native fish.

The Council is divided on the question of whether the constitutional language of “protect, restore and enhance prairies, wetlands, forests for fish, game and wildlife habitat” would cover the battle against aquatic invasive species like the zebra mussel and the Asian carp. There are several proposals in front of the LSOHC this year, bringing this debate to a head. In the past Conservation Minnesota has advocated for a modest increase in boat license fees to be dedicated to these aquatic invasive initiatives so that they do not compete with other traditional conservation efforts in Minnesota. Unfortunately, the Governor and the Legislature have rejected those proposals over the last 2 years. As state policymakers approach the 2014 session, it may be time to revisit this common sense approach to help manage the financial strain created by the many efforts to manage invasive species.

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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