A recently announced federal effort to eradicate so-called invasive species, if not taken to absurd lengths, is probably a good thing. But a lot of things are taken to absurd lengths in America, so we worry.
There’s no question that exotic, non-native plants and animals have huge potential for remaking the landscape, frequently in undesirable ways. Brown tree snakes are devouring bird populations on Guam; zebra mussels are pushing other species out of the Great Lakes; the Asian longhorn beetle is threatening to kill off the maple sugar industry in the Northeast; citrus canker is menacing Florida’s vast orchards.
So-called invasives cost the economy $137 billion, according to U.S. Forest Service estimates. And about 70 million acres of public land are threatened by 26 kinds of non-native insects and diseases. “The spread of invasive species is like a slow-moving wildfire,” Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said several weeks back when announcing a four-part federal strategy for combating the problem. “The impacts are just as significant, they’re just not as dramatic.”
Yet caution and common sense are needed in how we define our terms and tackle the problem. Wild mustangs, the Jersey cow, the tall fescue commonly used in our yards and even we homo sapiens could be defined as invasive species in North America, for instance. Where do we draw the line between these and other invaders that have carved out a comfortable niche in places where they weren’t before, some of which may even be beneficial? Can or should we discriminate between species that spread (or “invade”) naturally and those invited in through human action? In this ever-changing world, what should serve as the benchmark for determining what is “native” and what is “invasive?
The Crown vetch is widely used as ground cover for erosion control and by farmers to lower pesticide use. But it is listed by a number of government agencies as an exotic invasive species. Many plants we think of as native are considered by some to be invasive species. So it’s important that the definition be clarified before we launch an expensive federal effort.
“An alarming problem is developing because the terms ‘invasive,’ ‘noxious’ and ‘weed’ are used interchangeably with ‘introduced’ to describe plants,” said Jerry Chatterton, a researcher with the Agriculture Department’s Forage and Range Research Laboratory in one recent news story. “There are many good introduced plants, just as there are undesirable native ones.”
A fight is already erupting over who is most to blame for the spread of invasives, suggesting the issue is likely to become politicized. Environmentalists are quick to blame the problem on logging, livestock grazing and national forest roads, none of which they like. Resource industries say recreationists can’t escape blame. “The real uncontrolled part of this is the recreation community, whether it be your driving for pleasure, hunting, fishing, off-road vehicles,” said a spokesman for the America Forest Resource Council in Portland, Ore.
But Rey says such a blame game is pointless. “Every human use has the ability to spread invasives if people aren’t aware of the fact they can be vectors,” Rey said. “This is a problem everybody shares some ownership for.”
Then there’s the question of what this war on invasive species might mean to private property owners. Invasive animals and plants can’t recognize the boundary between public and private land, but we think the government should, as it begins to hunt down and eradicate these species. Some property rights activists worry that the effort will become yet another opportunity for government to encroach on the rights of land owners. So protocols and cooperative approaches are needed to ensure that the rights of property owners are respected and government itself doesn’t become a hostile invader and unwelcome guest.