With boll weevil eradication now firmly in place in northern Mexico, U.S. cotton producers are poised to benefit from a natural buffer between U.S. cotton production and Central American cotton production, according to a National Cotton Council scientist. The natural buffer will make it difficult for weevils to migrate to the United States.

In addition, the last two cotton-producing areas of the United States not participating in eradication will vote on a program this fall. “Everything is progressing as well as it can at this point,” said Frank Carter, senior scientist of pest management for the National Cotton Council.

“If everything goes all right and those pass, we'll have every cotton-producing area of the United States under eradication.”

In 2000, and again in 2001, a delegation including representatives of the Council, USDA, and cotton-producing areas of south Texas approached Mexico to suggest a joint effort to eradicate not the weevil, but the pink bollworm. They were surprised to find Mexico was interested in making the boll weevil a part of the effort.

“They recognized that both countries shared the same pest, and that pest doesn't care whether he's feeding on Mexican cotton or U.S. cotton,” Carter said.

Carter praised the steady hand of Jorge Hernandez, director general of Mexico's Sanidad Vegetal, an organization similar to USDA/APHIS, for moving the program forward. “He is committed to conducting cotton programs.”

The Chihuahua area of Mexico soon joined the Trans Pecos/El Paso area of Texas and another zone in New Mexico to eradicate the boll weevil and the pink bollworm. Since then, Mexico has expanded eradication efforts to other regions.

The eradication area of Mexico, which includes Tamaulipas and Chihuahua, is bordered by areas where cotton is not grown due to topography or lack of irrigation water. South of California, in the Mexicali region of Mexico, the boll weevil was eradicated as part of the California/Arizona boll weevil eradication program that began in 1986.

Carter noted that most early boll weevil plans called for “getting the program to the United States/Mexico border and stopping there. It makes a lot more practical, biological and economic sense to have the borders between eradicated and non-eradicated areas in the interior of Mexico.

“The big advantage is that it moves the boll weevil program to a natural break in cotton production rather than coming to a state line or international border with cotton on each side. (In the latter), we have to establish a buffer on our side of the border knowing full well that weevils are going to be flying across the river.”

The Mexican government is sharing some costs with its growers, but Carter is not sure of the specifics. The United States has provided technical support to Mexico, according to Carter. “APHIS has tried to get them surplus computers, GPS units and software we use to run the program. We've also trained people to run and manage the program.”

It's still early to say what impact a buffer in Mexico will have on boll weevil monitoring programs in the United States, according to Carter. “There will always be monitoring to some degree. If the real buffer is in Mexico, then Virginia and North Carolina might not need to trap so much.

“But we're thinking about what to do about protocols after eradication. We would look not only at monitoring, but how many people it would take, where we need offices and how much is it going to cost.”

Mexico could very well increase its production capacity with the boll weevil out of the way, Carter says. But that's a small price to pay for pushing the pest farther toward what is thought to be its native home of Central America. “It gives both countries an advantage as far as the pests are concerned,” Carter said.

The two areas of the United States set to vote on eradication are the northern Blacklands of Texas, which has twice failed to pass a referendum for eradication, and the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, which was to start educational meetings for a referendum in early October.

The programs could be final nails in the coffin for the boll weevil if the referenda pass, or a thorn in the side if they do not.

“As long as there are weevils outside a weevil eradication program, (they) fly wherever they can,” Carter said. “Some north/south trap lines in the lower Rio Grande Valley provide evidence of migration of weevils back into the Corpus Christi area.”

Carter noted that weevil eradication programs “are maturing. The northeast Delta program of Arkansas is into its second year. The nearest program is in its fourth year. Assuming the two new areas would come in during 2005, we'd be well on our way to completing active eradication by 2007.”

According to the Web site of the Arkansas Boll Weevil Eradication Program (www.arkansasweevil.org), the eradication program in the northeast Delta area of Arkansas caught an average 4.29 weevils per trap from Sept. 19 to Sept. 24, 2004, compared to 7.44 for the same time period in 2003. The program started with a fall diapause program Aug. 15, 2003. The boll weevil average per trap, per week for 2004 is still less than one weevil per trap to date.

Meanwhile, the northeast ridge zone of Arkansas has reduced weevil populations 98 percent since diapause was initiated in the fall of 2001.

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com