ONE DOWN, a dozen or so to go. While several Texas zones were preparing to vote on whether to participate in the Boll Weevil Eradication Program, the Southern Rolling Plains became the first in the state to achieve eradication status.

Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs officially declared the 10-county zone "functionally eradicated," which means inspectors have found no evidence of reproducing weevils in cotton fields.

"This is a historic milestone for Texas and the State's cotton industry," Combs said during the official declaration at Wall. "Texas cotton farmers are beginning to win the war against one of the most devastating pests in American agriculture."

Boll weevils account for more than $50 million in crop losses and treatment costs annually.

Woody Anderson, chairman of the board of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation, Inc., praised the Texas Legislature, the foundation, and Southern Rolling Plains cotton farmers for their determination in sticking with the program.

"I'm extremely pleased to see the fruits of all our efforts over the past five to six years," Anderson said.

He said eradication in the Southern Rolling Plains bodes well for the entire program. The area will be looked upon as a model for the rest of the state, he said.

He praised growers for their commitment to the program. "At the onset of this battle, producers made up their minds that they had lived with the weevil and its disastrous effects long enough."

"They took the initiative to establish the zone," said Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock. "They got behind the program, and because of their willingness to see it through, I knew it was just a matter of time before they could enjoy weevil-free cotton.

Duncan and Rep. Judy Hawley, D-Portland, sponsored a bill during the 76th Legislature that created a state cost-share program to help farmers in established zones pay eradication assessments.

Rep. Robert Junell, D-San Angelo, and Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, sponsored a bill in the 76th Legislature for emergency appropriations for boll weevil eradication. Funds helped farmers in the three zones active in 1998 to offset costs incurred as a result of the 1998 drought.

The Southern Rolling Plains Boll Weevil Eradication Zone covers about 265,000 acres in 10 counties: Coke, Coleman, Concho, Irion, Mason, McCulloch, Runnels, Schleicher, Tom Green and the southern part of Taylor.

"We're excited," said Lindy Patton, executive director, Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation, Inc. "But we still have a lot to do. We want to see a domino effect as one zone eradicated makes it easier to eradicate those adjacent to it."

Currently, Texas has eight active boll weevil eradication zones, covering approximately 3.5 million acres. The Southern Blacklands Zone was approved earlier this year and will become active in 2001. Referendums to establish two additional zones, the Northern High Plains and the Southern High Plains/Caprock, are scheduled this fall.

Interest in other areas, such as the Coastal Bend and the Rio Grande Valley, has increased following an extremely difficult year with boll weevil infestations.

The stakes are high. "Cotton is the state's leading cash crop, with more than $1 billion in sales each year," Combs said. "Eradication efforts will ensure that Texas cotton will remain competitive with other states where boll weevil eradication has been completed. Production costs are lower in these states."

Other active zones are making progress, according to reports from the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation, Inc.

In the week ending Sept. 16, Northern Rolling Plains Zone trap counts averaged 2.9 weevils per trap, compared to 24.63 weevils per trap the same week a year ago.

The Northern Rolling Plains Zone initiated the program just last year. Four other zones that began eradication in 1999 are showing similar success.

The Western High Plains, Northwest Plains, Permian Basin, and El Paso/Trans Pecos zones have seen weevil numbers decline by more than 90 percent after just one year in the program.

The Rolling Plains Central Zone has seen weevil counts decline by more than 99.9 percent since 1996. South Texas/Winter Garden has noted a 93 percent reduction since 1996.

Patton says two or three zones will be close to a declaration of "functionally eradicated" next year. "Numbers in the Rolling Plains Central Zone look very good," he said.

Foundation officials say growers in the newly established zones will see aggressive treatment of weevils this fall as the program attempts to reduce the number of weevils that hibernate so fewer will emerge next spring.

In inactive zones, the story is much different.

Texas Extension entomologist Jim Leser, Lubbock, says boll weevil numbers outside active zones have exploded this fall. He says in mid-September observers "saw an eruption in weevil numbers to levels that we had not seen in previous years until well into October, four weeks later than this.

"And these high levels have occurred for the High Plains in spite of three active zones. This only goes to show that weevils have really increased in the two remaining inactive zones (in the Texas Plains)."

Leser says upcoming votes on eradication will be extremely important. He urged producers and landlords to vote or "suffer the consequences of their inaction."

The staggering weevil population explosion included:

The Northern High Plains had a 273 percent increase in trap catches for the week ending September 22, compared to last year.

The Southern High Plains/Caprock Zone had a 269 percent increase.

Patton said interest from other areas continues. "A number of agencies are looking for ways to help farmers interested in the program to get in," he said.