PALISADE — In 2003, Brant Harrison needed a project. The Palisade peach grower was part of an agricultural leadership program and needed something good.
Around the same time, he attended a meeting hosted by Colorado State University about a new insect found in the area: Japanese beetles. They’d found a few in 2002.
“The next year, they put out a bunch of traps and found 1,200 beetles,” said Harrison, Kokopelli Produce’s owner. “But they didn’t say this is what we are going to do. They just said this is what we found. I came home to my wife and said, ‘I found my project.’”
If you’re a Front Range home gardener raising roses or rhubarb, cultivating Virginia creeper or crabapples, growing grapes or any one of the 300 plants this beetle loves to devour, you’ve likely seen the damage: Leaves reduced to a delicate, lacy skeleton of what once was. Roses chewed to bits. Pock-marked peaches. Softball-sized patches of brown grass in an otherwise lush lawn. The black and brown beetles with a metallic glimmer of green show up in July and seem to mate instantly. The problem is so out of control that in December 2016, the state department of agriculture enacted an in-state quarantine to keep untreated nursery plants in 11 Front Range counties from heading into uninfested towns, like Palisade.
This small town known for its peaches and cherries and vineyards had already declared war on the Japanese beetle, or Popillia japonica, back in 2004, with Harrison leading the charge.
Sure, there were pesticides involved, traps set out and irrigation cut off. And the town had this unique power of a pest-control district. But it’s the sort of pest that doesn’t go away unless you and your neighbors and their neighbors and their neighbors battle it together. Eradicating Japanese beetles, especially along the Front Range, is considered impossible today, bug experts say. But astonishingly, that year in Palisade, the town’s 712 households banded together in the war against the beetle — all except for one.
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“We explained that yes, we want to put chemicals on your lawn, but this is why. If we do it for a year or two, you won’t have a problem and it will cut down on (larger-scale) pesticide applications in the future. They understood,” said Harrison, who would bring a bag of cherries or apricots when he visited strangers to explain.
“But we had somebody where we had the sheriff out while we put chemicals on their yard,” Harrison said. “This guy, he was put in prison a few years later (for attempted murder).”
“This is Palisade, not Boulder. We can do this.”
Harrison reached out to CSU researchers, agriculture officials, master gardeners and other farmers. The Palisade Japanese Beetle Eradication Committee held its first meeting in December 2003.
“The first meeting we had, I can still remember the man from the Department of Agriculture, Jerry Cochran. We were throwing out ideas,” Harrison said. “One way was to treat every lawn in Palisade with a pesticide that would kill them. And Jerry said, ‘You can’t go there. There is no way you can do this.’ I remember looking at him specifically and saying, ‘Jerry, this is Palisade, not Boulder. We can do this.’”
The town also had a secret weapon that no other community in the state possessed: a pest control district focused on horticulture (other districts in the state focus on mosquitoes or noxious weeds). The Upper Grand Valley Pest Control District, which includes Palisade and parts of unincorporated Clifton, was formed in 1965 under state statute. The designation gives a region some funding and legal authority to fight invasive species.
Every new pest added to the district’s “hot list” must be approved by landowners who own more than 5 acres of property because programs are funded by a mill levy on property taxes, said Teresa Nees, a past coordinator with the Mesa County noxious weed and pest program. Pushed by Harrison’s grassroots effort, Japanese beetles were placed on the list in May 2004 by a vote of 475 to 21. That vote would prove critical.
“Mesa, and especially Palisade, is very tight knit because they depend on each other,” said Nees, now manager at the Mesa County Hazardous Waste Collection Facility. “If your neighbor has a problem, it’s going to become your problem, too, because we’re so close. There’s a ton of support from the general community for our commercial farm growers. Word got out, people understood what the problem was and the vote got passed.”
Of course, Harrison had a large financial stake. At age 13 and living in Oklahoma, he said he knew that he wanted to raise peaches in Colorado. So he moved to the state after high school and bought his first orchard in 1979 at age 19. Kokopelli Produce went completely organic in 1991 and is one of the largest certified-organic peach producers in the state today, with more than 65 acres of fruit trees. Back in 2004, Kokopelli’s had 25 acres.
“It had the potential to affect my orchard big time,” Harrison said. “We had a couple of meetings and I took the bull by the horns. I became the official Japanese beetle eradication chairman.”
There’s limited research on the economic impact of the Japanese beetle. The U.S. Department of Agriculture once said controlling the pest costs $460 million a year, but that factoid has been floating around for at least a decade, and it’s the same number used in the agency’s updated 2015 homeowner handbook.
But we do know the creature is from Japan, where it’s less of a pest, according to the Invasive Species Compendium. The Journal of Integrated Pest Management reports that Japan’s unsuitable terrain and natural predators like the Istocheta aldrichi parasitic fly keep the beetle in check.
The Japanese beetle was first discovered in the United States in 1916 at a nursery in Riverton, N.J. In states east of Colorado, the Japanese beetle has thrived for so long that it’s become a part of life.
Colorado finally put a quarantine on plants coming in from eastern states in 2010. The quarantine only affects nurseries, though. Nurseries must prove that the soil was treated with insecticides before the plant can be transported into Colorado. Trees with root balls greater than 32 inches in diameter, for example, are banned, unless the nursery proves the soil the tree was grown in was treated or allows a state inspector to treat it on the spot. The nursery pays for the inspector’s time, at $34 an hour, or faces a $1,000 fine per violation.
“In the last nine years, and this is a guess, we’ve only had one fine,” said Laura Pottorff, Plant Health and Certification Section Chief at the state Department of Agriculture. “But we have had other actions taken where we may not have fined the group bringing the plants in but we made sure they went and treated them. We stood there and watched it happen.”
Japanese beetles were never supposed to make it to Colorado. They couldn’t fly here on their own. And beetles need moisture. The state’s natural climate is not quite a desert, but there’s limited water supply. Females dig a hole in the grass to lay eggs. But if turf is hard and inhospitable, she’ll fly to a neighbor’s yard.
(That’s why communities must work together simultaneously, points out Meredith Shrader, CSU’s Area Extension Agent Entomology. These beetles fly. And they’ll fly 1-2 miles when they sense pheromones from a trap — so don’t use those either. “I’m from Virginia,” she said. “People joke about the Japanese beetle traps and that you should put them in your neighbor’s yard so they’ll leave yours.”)
The beetle reached Colorado in the mid-1990s, likely by hitching a ride on an untreated plant. Palisade is considered the state’s first infestation in 2002. A few years later, Cherry Hills Village trapped 17,000 beetles, according to a 2006 story in The Denver Post, and the beetle count has ballooned to 40,000 last year, according to Hans Kaufenberg, a Cherry HIlls Village parks maintenance worker.
“Those beetles are a bummer,” he said.
Infestations have popped up from Fort Collins to Pueblo. There are currently 36 states on the USDA’s list of infested or partially infested states, with infected areas in Colorado listed as Arapahoe, Boulder, Denver, Jefferson and Pueblo counties.
Pottorff says the solution is clear.
“In our state, we have a semi-arid climate naturally, but there are definitely people who live in this state and want to change their landscape,” Pottorff said. “I’m not judging, but with irrigation, this pest takes off. Without irrigation, this pest is limited.”
The one house
Back in Palisade, Harrison worked with CSU and area extension agent Bob Hammon on a grant that awarded the local effort $15,000. Other agencies offered support including the state Department of Agriculture, which committed $20,000.
Some of the money was used to hire Matt Camper, a CSU graduate student at the time. By the time Camper moved to Palisade after his semester ended, the bug was on the pest control district’s list and 706 of the 712 properties had mailed back forms agreeing to the chemical treatment. There would be no cost to landowners, and some liked the idea because the insecticide would take care of other nuisance grubs.
Camper, then 25, spent his first few days that May visiting people who hadn’t responded.
“I made it my duty to go and visit those people,” said Camper, who today is an entomology professor and assistant dean at CSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “By and large, they had set (the form) on the kitchen counter and they forgot to send it in.”
Camper went all in on the project. He printed up colorful T-shirts with the words “Japanese Beetle Eradication Coordinator.” He stopped in at Elks Club meetings, attended community potlucks and hung out at the courthouse. He made sure to eat lunch at the restaurants in town to mingle with the locals and be available for any questions they had.
“People would be like, ‘Oh, you’re that guy,’” Camper recalled. “Or they’d be like, ‘I have these weird looking beetles’ and then pull them out of a pocket. ‘Are these the things you’re looking for?’”
By June, Camper told three holdouts they could dry out their lawns if they didn’t want to use insecticides. That didn’t mean banning watering entirely, but allowing for one deep watering a week. It’s the surface that needed to be dry and hard, not the deeper roots. As an extra measure to ensure eradication, drying out lawns was voluntary for all participants.
“A lot of folks had just moved to the area. They didn’t understand the impact this could have on the grower and the economy. The beetle created barriers for trade in the Western states when they put those quarantines in place. That really brought people on board,” he said. “Some people wondered what it would do to their pets. It (the insecticide) was a tiny granule that would be spread and watered into the lawn. It wasn’t a spray.”
The eradication committee had given a lot of thought to the insecticide because of all the organic farming in the area. Certified organic produce, by the way, allows for natural pesticides, not synthetically manufactured ones (here’s a list). The committee picked imidacloprid, which was touted as not being as bad for the environment as previously used insecticides.
According to the National Pesticide Information Center, imidacloprid mimics nicotine and is used on sucking insects, like termites and fleas. It damages the insects’ nervous system and they die. If pets swallow too much of the chemical, they could develop tremors or have trouble walking. It’s also very toxic to honeybees and other beneficial insects.
And that became an issue for resident James Duran, who was quoted in a few local news stories as opposing the use of insecticides because he was raising miniature Chihuahuas.
“Are you going to guarantee it (isn’t harmful to pets)?” Duran said at the county commissioner meeting in July 2004, according to the Daily Sentinel. “Are you going to guarantee if you don’t let them spray, you’ll take care of the agricultural problem of the entire valley?” Commissioner Tillie Bishop snapped back.
Duran, who lived on West Street in Palisade, was the lone holdout. Harrison said the sheriff was on site the day work was done on Duran’s lawn.
A year later, Duran was convicted of attempted murder. He died in prison of natural causes in 2010, according to an NBC KKCO News report.
“It’s sad that we have someone like that in society,” Harrison said. “That’s the only person we had to exert any legal force on.”
How to get rid of Japanese beetles
Residents didn’t pay a cent for the lawn treatment or other control efforts. Green and yellow traps made by a company called Trece were donated by the state and U.S. Division of Agriculture. They were installed in yards all over town in May and had two types of bait, a floral compound that attracted both sexes, and Japonilure, an imitation pheromone to attract males.
TruGreen ChemLawn won the pesticide application contract with its bid of zero. Bayer Environmental Science had also donated 4,300 pounds of imidacloprid pesticide, or Merit 0.5G. The insecticide was applied between June 14 and 17 and also spread on all city-owned lots, school playgrounds and other public property.
It was more about educating the public. Long-time resident and peach-orchard owner Priscilla Walker said she didn’t even know what Japanese beetle were when the committee came calling in 2004
“I had to ask them for a picture of what they looked like. I clearly had never seen it before,” said Walker, whose orchard supplies fruit to Kokopelli’s (“If you’re buying his organic peaches at Whole Foods, you’re probably eating my peaches,” she said.).
“To me, it was a no brainer. Of course you let them do whatever they needed to eradicate it,” she said. “And what they did was truly wonderful.”
Timing was important. Grubs born the previous summer overwinter deep in the ground. They are the first ones to return in the spring, feeding on grass roots by June. They pupate into adults sometime in July. That’s when they might be attracted to the traps.
“If one property, one turf area or one green area was missed, the program can’t work,” Camper said. “That’s why Palisade is so awesome. They all came on board.”
By October, the traps were cleaned and counted. The 416 traps had attracted 978 beetles, down 21% from the prior year. Altogether, Harrison estimates the cost was around $50,000, a bargain compared to what it could take to eradicate them on the Front Range. Just outside of Portland, Oregon, for example, the county is in the throes of fighting the beetle and has estimated that it’s spending at least $45 million a year on quarantines and chemical treatments.
Final results of Palisade’s 2004 experiment wouldn’t be known for years. It would take another year to find out whether the ground was too hard for female Japanese beetles to lay their 40 to 60 eggs a season. Or whether the larvae had come in contact with the insecticide and choked to death.
So Palisade did it all over again in 2005.
The first beetles were caught the week of July 6. By the end of the season, traps caught 117 beetles, most of which were concentrated in a six-block area by Crawford Lane.
And the town did it again in 2006. About half the properties were targeted because of the prior year’s discovery of a core area. This time, 66 beetles were caught.
In 2007, there were 47.
And in 2008, there were 13.
In 2009, there were zero.
The town has never again seen the infestation of the mid 2000s, but CSU Extension agent Meredith Shrader isn’t about to say Palisade is beetle-free, but the numbers are low enough numbers as to not be an immediate threat to the agriculture in the area.
One beetle was trapped in 2013 and 21 lawns were treated the following year. Two were found in traps last year at Palisade Veterans Memorial Park, so the area is being treated this year as a precaution. No private lawns were treated this summer, though.
For a town to come together as Palisade did is pretty much unheard of — and unlikely to be duplicated.
Palisade had so many things going in its favor — a small area, early discovery, a pest-control district with oomph, a community that got behind the iconic peach, and a leader in Harrison.
The Front Range is more or less doomed, Shrader said. People could dry out their lawns, nip their rose buds and pull up all the Virginia creeper. But even if a neighborhood gets together, there will always be the neighbors beyond those borders. Plus, people just love their lawns.
“In Denver, the Japanese beetle is there to stay. There is not going to be any eradication,” she said. “Last year, my family went to the zoo. There are all those green parks. That’s where people who don’t have lawns and live in apartments go to enjoy a green lawn. I don’t see cutting water usage as a way to control the Japanese beetle happening on a large scale. People could try to decrease the population, but it’s never going to be 100%.”
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Quarantines also don’t last forever, points out Pottorff, with the state’s Agriculture Department. Right now, there’s an economic incentive for the nursery industry to bear the brunt of quarantine costs.
“Once the Western states like California, Oregon and Washington, once they wave the white flag, which may be years down the road, you will see Colorado’s quarantine go away,” she said. “Yes, they want to protect the state, but when it comes down to it, when it costs too much, they will not be in favor of it.”
The Denver Botanic Gardens stopped using traps because the pheromone bait is so strong “it will attract beetles from a few miles away,” said horticulturist Mario Bertelmann. They don’t use pesticides either because of the harm to beneficial insects. Staff is working with CSU researchers to monitor the pest and the impact of weather patterns on the bug. Volunteers, meanwhile, manually pick beetles off plants every morning.
“We’re also noticing a bit more activity as far as natural predators using them as a food source. Different birds we have here on site are actually starting to catch some of them. Of course, it doesn’t make a huge dent in the population, but it’s something that’s contributing a little bit,” he said.
Bertelmann also suggests that homeowners reduce the amount of turf in the yard, stick with native plants and try xeriscaping. He’s hopeful that the Front Range can figure this out.
“It’s definitely a problem that can be tackled,” Bertelmann said. “It’ll just take several years. Everyone is becoming aware of it, learning the signs and symptoms … As daunting as it seems, communities need to get involved. Having a grassroots approach is a great first step and it will get the attention of state officials. We need to get more creative as far as our approach to it.”
Whitney Cranshaw, a CSU entomology professor who is considered a national expert on Japanese beetles, hasn’t given up entirely. He’s focused on controlling the pest with the beetle’s natural enemies.
“This is a classic biological control type of program, entirely different from what was done in Palisade, where the goal was to eradicate the insect. Eastern Colorado is way too far gone for that to be an option,” Cranshaw said in an email, “so we are attempting to suppress populations in the long run. How I often explain this is that, if successful, a decade from now there may only be three Japanese beetles feeding on your rose, rather than the 10.”
As for Harrison, he’ll always remember the project he chose for the Colorado Agricultural Leadership Program back in 2003.
“It’s funny, one person in the program, they didn’t even remember what their project was,” said Harrison, who kept a scrapbook of the project’s reports, CSU research and local news articles. “Mine? Boy, I’ll remember that it became so successful as far as eradicating something of this magnitude and on this budget. That’s unheard of.”