The noose is tightening and boll weevils are running out of places to hide. “Despite a few problems, the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Program has made an incredible amount of progress in an incredibly short time,” says Texas A&M Extension entomologist Jim Leser.

Leser, an IPM specialist in Lubbock, also chairs the technical advisory committee of the Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation, Inc., from where he keeps tabs on progress and problems with the program across the state.

Leser says three sensitive areas remain to be addressed as the eradication effort “closes the gap” on weevil infestation problems.

“We're still concerned about areas that are not in the program yet,” he said. “The Lower Rio Grande Valley, in particular, poses unique challenges.”

He says developing a workable maintenance program, following eradication, also provides a significant challenge.

“And a few hiccups from last year caused problems,” he says. “But we're working those out.”

An active technical committee, he says, helps limit those “hiccups” and makes solutions easier to find.

“Charles Allen (BWEP executive director) keeps us plugged in to what's going on with eradication,” Leser says. “We talk every week so we can inform committee members.”

One area of concern has been treatment of failed acres. Leser says revising the policy on how to treat failed planting will help maintain integrity of the program. “In the past, when acreage was declared failed, the program pulled all the traps but one from the field,” Leser says.

That policy resulted in a set back last year in the Permian Basin Zone, where a lot of cotton failed to emerge. Farmers planted alternative crops and when they finally got adequate rain, the crop came up but so did much of the cotton.

“Boll weevils came in and produced at least one generation. Some of those moved into the Rolling Plains Central Zone.”

Leser says detection was not timely enough to prevent infestations heavy warranting substantial pesticide spray. “Those two zones had to spray a lot.”

Leser says no reproduction occurred in the Rolling Plains Central Zone but the Permian Basin likely will see higher weevil numbers this year. “The increase will not be big but larger than last year. It's a step backward.”

Based on that experience, Leser says the technical advisory committee initiated a change for failed acreage. “Now, we don't pull traps until we're certain that no cotton will emerge. And we continue to check the traps routinely.”

Leser says another problem occurred in the southern part of the Coastal Bend/Winter Garden Zone. “We had a lot of weevils in fields but trap counts did not detect the population. We have three explanations for the discrepancy:

Some fields were undetected and not trapped. Wild hosts allowed weevils to survive, but that's not likely.

Trappers were not doing their jobs or trap tampering skewed counts.

Leser says traps have been redesigned and are now “tamper proof.”

He also said the Boll Weevil Foundation will scrutinize personnel closely to make certain traps are checked and counted accurately.

He says the late stages of the eradication effort are critical. “When we get weevils numbers near zero, it's hard to get to suppression,” he says. Setbacks make the chore even more difficult.

“But the Foundation has put in a lot of effort to solve these problems and help institute solutions.”

Leser says the environment was not hard on weevil populations last year, which allowed the miscues to show up more prominently. “Under more harsh conditions, we may not have seen any difference,” he says.

Leser says weevil numbers across most active zones are low this year. “We made significant progress in 2002. He says most if not all active zones could be declared suppressed by the end of the 2003 ginning season “if we don't have problems.”

The Texas Department of Agriculture already has declared two zones functionally eradicated and more than a half-dozen others could be declared suppressed by year-end.

“The technical committee hopes to recommend that quarantines be lifted in these zones at the end of the season,” Leser says.

Lifting quarantines allows more freedom to move raw cotton and equipment.

Several areas remain outside the program and Leser hopes to see those included in some form of eradication effort within the next few years.

Part of West Texas, the Texas Panhandle, the Northern Blacklands, St. Lawrence and the Rio Grande Valley currently are out of the program.

“St. Lawrence runs its own diapause program and has done so for some 30 years,” Leser says. “It's working well.”

He also says part of that zone, north Glasscock County, has petitioned to join the Permian Basin Zone.

“If that passes, assessment will be the same as it is for other farmers in the Permian Basin. We don't have a lot of weevils left in the north Glasscock County area, so numbers will not be high enough to change the Permian Basin designation.”

Leser says if the program cleans weevils out of Glasscock County and the Permian Basin, St. Lawrence likely will come into the program “without a high cost.”

He says, as numbers get lower, the program can take care of weevils much more cheaply. “We don't have to nuke everything.”

He says Panhandle cotton growers also are looking at eradication, an effort that would benefit zones to the south. “All the cotton in the Panhandle is ginned in active zones to the south,” Leser says.

“Quarantines pose some difficulty for Panhandle growers. “We've been working with a group of growers in the Panhandle, looking at options.”

Several possibilities exist, he says.

  • Don't grow cotton.

  • Develop an eradication program under the auspices of some agency (such as the Extension service).

  • Create a protection plan for cotton going into an active zone. That could include holding cotton in a specific area to trap weevils and treat if necessary. Leser says a protection plan has never been approved.

  • Build a gin (too expensive, according to Leser).

  • Eradicate. “That's what the group wants,” Leser says.

He says the Panhandle could attach to an existing zone for the same assessment in effect. Or they could create a new zone and “the assessment would be less. That's what the grower group wants.”

Eradication would be relatively inexpensive because active zones surround the Panhandle Zone. “There is no cotton to the north,” Leser says. “And active Boll Weevil Eradication in New Mexico, Oklahoma and to the south will make weevil movement into the zone unlikely.

“Growers will recommend a zone, and I think it will be approved in a referendum, which could be passed by the end of the year.”

The new zone would include almost 20,000 acres of cotton on 52 farms.

“They'll start a trapping program through the Foundation this year,” Leser says. “But the Foundation will select five representative fields to trap.”

Cotton acreage is spread across the Panhandle. “Some areas have very little cotton; some areas have a lot.”

He hopes to have a plan by the end of July, an assessment rate determined and adequate data to begin the program. “I think weevil numbers will be low, and if everything goes right, we'll begin next spring. Low weevil numbers will allow a spring start instead of fall diapause.”

Weevil control next spring will depend on trap counts. “They'll spray where weevils show up and will not make blanket applications. The technical committee will use trap data to determine if numbers are at suppression status.”

Leser is optimistic. “I think it can be done, especially since the zone has no real source for weevils. We're making a lot of progress in closing the gap.”

He says within the next 12 to 18 months only the Rio Grande Valley and the Northern Blacklands could be left without active eradication programs. He says the Northern Blacklands could pose some problems for Oklahoma as weevils move into eradicated areas.

The Rio Grande Valley presents a significant challenge, Leser says. “The technical committee is developing a plan, looking at the best way to suppress weevils in the Valley without financial strain on the growers.

“We're looking at planting dates, stalk destruction and other cultural practices through diverse disciplines. We'll develop a working plan and then modify it as needed.”

Eventually, Leser says, cultural practices should suppress weevil numbers to the point that an active eradication effort can come in and complete the job at a relatively low cost. He says getting the Valley into an eradication program will be a goal he hopes to achieve before he retires.

He's also planning for the day when boll weevils are considered eradicated across Texas. “We have to develop a maintenance plan,” he says. “By the end of the year, the technical committee hopes to have a template for what a maintenance program should look like and then we can get it adopted.”

He's not certain whether each zone should have an individual, specialized maintenance program or if one overall plan will work. “We would like to see some integration of zones.”

“Some folks may ask why we should continue to trap after weevils have been eradicated,” he says. “The key is where we put the traps. We'll want them on highways, at gins and rest stops, where we can catch weevils hitch-hiking in from other states. Finding and destroying weevils before they can reproduce will be a key to maintenance.

“We want to be able to change strategy quickly if weevils show up.”

Leser says the noose has been rapidly tightening around the weevil the last two years as its habitat shrinks. Some of the newest zones have suppressed numbers quickly. Leser says harsh winters and a good diapause program helped.

“After just two full seasons, three zones will be considered suppressed. Most new zones require four years to get to that point.”

He says an active technical committee also pays dividends to the program. “We serve as an oversight organ. We can analyze data and help prevent problems.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com