Monday, December 05, 2016

The Latest False Revisionism About Invasive Species

Oftentimes, the headlines that catch our eye are the ones that upset the applecart of long-held views. There's something appealing about the rebels who, with their "growing body of evidence", dare to send the stuffy status quo packing. One subset of this genre that refuses to die is the oped or opinion-drenched article that leaps to the defense of much maligned invasive species, and tells us they aren't so bad after all. Even veteran editors can fall prey to these contrarian views, no matter how thin the factual support they offer, in much the same way the nation's president-to-be's scathing attacks and threadbare proposals were graded on a curve.

A recent addition to this genre is "Humans make a mess, but invasive species get the blame", a Boston Globe article written by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. It appeared online Nov. 27, 2016. She's described as an American freelance writer living in London. A better title would be "Humans make a mess, and invasive species are one of those messes".

Though the details of this extensive post will interest only more nature-philic readers, it demonstrates yet again how seductive is any view that let's people off the hook, that helps us avoid taking responsibility and acting intentionally to solve collectively created problems. For those appalled by the mostly rightwing resistance to acknowledging and taking action to slow climate change, you can find a parallel form of denial among a subset of liberal-leaning people who deny the reality of and any solutions for invasive species.

Below is a complete reproduction of the text, along with critiques inserted. Access it by clicking on the "Read more":

It's important to see how the bias and misrepresentation play out in the full text, which here is indented. The quickest way to read this (if you trust my judgement as someone trained in botany, with 30 some years of experience in the field) and want to learn about the tricks and biases these sorts of articles use, is to just read my comments, but the article's text is there to keep me honest.

The article begins with a lovely description of starlings in flight.
A FLOCK of starlings in flight is called a “murmuration,” one of the most pleasing collective nouns. It’s also one of nature’s most pleasing sights, an undulating mass of thousands of black dots that coalesce into hypnotic shapes, like an airborne Rorschach test or a lava lamp.
Yes. Invasive species can be pretty. Then, a description of some of their negative traits.
But to some in the United States, a murmuration of starlings is unwelcome. Loud and aggressive, the species is said to bully the native woodpeckers and bluebirds. Starlings also have a problematic tendency to murmurate near airfields; in 1960, a Lockheed Electra took off from Logan Airport into a flock of some 10,000 starlings and crashed, killing 62 passengers. In 1990, a writer in The New York Times opined that the starling had “distinguished itself as one of the costliest and most noxious birds on our continent.” This, according to the paper, is a pestilent, ravenous bird that defiles with droppings what it doesn’t eat, costing farmers millions.
Note the "to some", which begins to marginalize those concerned about the starlings' invasive behavior, and the "said to", which raises doubts as to whether the concerns are real. Then comes the unattributed value judgement.
The big problem with starlings is that they don’t belong here. They are what‘s called an introduced, alien, or exotic species. If a species is bad enough, like the aggressive starling, we call it “invasive.” In 1992, famed Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson branded “exotic animals” the second-largest cause of extinctions worldwide, behind habitat destruction. He expressed what was then coalescing into the dominant discourse about introduced organisms: They’re bad news. We don’t want them.
Though E.O. Wilson is quoted, the article's author inserts her own unattributed language--"don't belong here" and "We don't want them." These words, tinged with xenophobia, are the author's invention which is unfairly associated by proximity with E.O. Wilson.
This, in part, is why conservationists were alarmed this past summer when odd species of turtles were spotted in Quincy and Western Massachusetts. It’s why park officials in Des Moines are trying to weed out non-native honeysuckles and Florida conservationists are trying to persuade chefs and supermarkets to serve up lionfish. It’s why the United States and the European Union have been fighting a trade dispute about Maine lobsters in Sweden.
The Des Moines link tells of a clever initiative to feed zoo animals the nonnative honeysuckle shrubs that have invaded local parks and nature preserves. A common observation is that native wildlife don't eat nonnative invasive plant species. The exotic zoo animals, then, are performing the task of eating the exotic plants that our native wildlife reject. Herbivory is an important means of preventing one or another plant species from outcompeting others. When introduced plant species become invasive and threaten ecological balance, it usually means humans have to play the herbivore role, by cutting down the invasives or, in this case, delivering them to the zoo.

The article then presents a whopper--a complete overturning of the applecart. Very dramatic.
So what should we do about starlings — and all these other interlopers?
For a growing minority of biologists, conservationists, ecologists, and environmental writers, the answer is simple. Nothing.
As a writer, I know how tempting it is to use the word "all". We all--there, you see?--seek catharsis, and catharsis is so much more satisfying when it can be complete, without any pesky qualifications. So, wow, every species that's invasive, apparently including imported pathogens that can invade our bodies, should be allowed to run free and wreak havoc to their hearts' content. And what a relief for readers that a supposed threat requires no action. You should be suspicious about any view that let's people off the hook, whether it be climate denial, invasive species denial, or the belief that tax cuts will somehow increase government revenue.

Note also the reference to a "growing minority". Opeds of this sort often refer to a "growing" number of people who support the view expressed, but we're always asked to take that claim on faith.

THE OCCASION for the Times’ scathing op-ed on the starlings was the 100th anniversary of their introduction into America. On March 6, 1890, Eugene Schieffelin, a wealthy pharmaceuticals maker and inveterate bird importer, released 60 European starlings in Central Park. The starlings loved America. All of it. By 1929, they’d made it as far as Oklahoma. By 1942, they were in California. Now, some 200 million starlings eat, defecate, and bully in almost every state in the Union.
The Department of Agriculture now considers the bird one of the most worrisome invasive animals, right up there with the nutria gnawing through Louisiana river banks and the Burmese pythons swallowing alligators in the Everglades. “It’s the poster child for what it is we don’t like about invasives,” declares Ron Rohrbaugh of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Between 2014 and 2015, more than 1 million starlings in 45 states — notably, just half of a percent of the total US starling population — were killed by the federal government in a bid to curb the bird’s destructive presence.
But starlings may not be as problematic as we think. For one thing, though there is evidence that starlings moving into an area can lead to a local decline of certain native bird populations, there is no evidence that there is a decline in the larger population. In their case against the starling, the USDA notes, “From 1990 to 2013 European starlings were involved in 3,348 aircraft strikes resulting in $6,865,043 in damage costs to the airlines.” Yet during the period of 1990 to 2014, red-tailed hawks — so American they sailed into a John Denver song — cost airlines $23,649,229, the government estimated, and few are arguing to exterminate them.
The comparison of starlings and red-tailed hawks is interesting, if the data is accurate. No link is offered, and skepticism about data ("supposedly") is reserved for the data on negative consequences.
Supposedly, the birds eat $800 million worth of grain in the United States each year. Yet environmental writer Fred Pearce points out that, if the starling displaces native birds, it’s displacing birds that would have fed on (and defecated on) the same crops. Starlings have done some good things: During the 1934 drought in Illinois, for example, starlings and their ravenous appetite reportedly saw off the destructive chinch bug.
Fred Pearce, author of "The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature's Salvation", is quoted here, but a quick online look at his book shows that Pearce is merely presuming, and offers no evidence to back up a claim that birds displaced by the starlings would have fed with the same frenzy on grain crops as the starlings. Pearce's speculation is transformed in this article into conclusion.

Then there's the assertion that starlings were reportedly beneficial during one drought in 1934. Interesting, but it's also common for apologists for invasive species to present one positive trait as mitigating all the problematic ones.
While not exactly defending starlings, Pearce and others worry about what they see as the simplistic dogma of conservation biology: Native is good, foreign is bad. Pearce, an environmental journalist for The Guardian and others, explored the knee-jerk rejection of introduced species in his 2015 book, “The New Wild,” ultimately arguing that successful non-native species, including those labeled invasive, have a lot more to offer than dogma dictates.
Again, the author is using her own words, without any evidence or attribution, to accuse conservation biology of the "simplistic dogma" of "Native is good, foreign is bad", and "knee-jerk rejection of introduced species". If one's looking for simplistic dogma, consider the view, earlier expressed, that we should do nothing about "all" of the invasive species.
NOT ALL alien species are disliked. Both cows and honey bees, for instance, were introduced. The honey bee is now the state insect of 12 states. But during the 20th century, sentiment turned against non-native species, sometimes without regard to their actual impact. In a 2011 paper, Dr. Martin Schlaepfer of SUNY Syracuse and his colleagues determined that “a bias persists against non-native species among scientists.” The positive effects of an introduced species are rarely reported, and scientific literature about non-native species is “frequently scattered with militarized and xenophobic expressions.”
Those words "militarized" and "xenophobic" pop up a lot in this genre. We've seen in political campaigns how a politician can use innuendo to darken our view of the opponent, and the same technique is being used here. The word "invasion" is commonly used in military contexts, but it's also a very useful term to describe how some species behave. If we were displaced from our homes by a species from another planet, we'd feel invaded and try to defend ourselves. We don't call people "xenophobic" who are concerned about the spread of Ebola virus. Whether it's the health of our bodies or our ecosystems, introduced species can pose a threat.
To the US government and the European Parliament, an invasive species is defined as one that might “harm” the ecosystem. But the meaning of “harm” is often based on what humans need or want, not what’s best for nature.
Here's where some major hypocrisy sets in. The critics of action against invasive species offer lots of emotional payoffs for their readers: a supposedly oppressive dogma to gleefully overturn, a xenophobic "other" to despise, one less world problem to worry about, and relief from responsibility to take mitigating action. To attack established disciplines and activities like conservation biology and habitat restoration, they cherry pick data and offer gross, self-serving simplifications of nature. The way to find out what's best for nature is to devote your life to studying it, and to conduct habitat restoration in the field, not to criticize from the outside.
Still, for government, the mandate to oust invaders is clear. “There are a lot of invasive pests where there is really no question, and I would say that a majority of them would fall into that category,” said Dr. Rosalind James, who studies invasive pests of crops in the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. She points to citrus greening, a disease currently devastating the Florida orange crop. It spreads via the Asian psyllid, a tiny bug that has cut a swath through citrus trees from China to Afghanistan and now the Western Hemisphere. The US government has plunged $380 million into eradicating the disease, and the bug, since 2009.
Here's an interesting notion, in the next paragraph, dear to my heart from organic gardening and ecology, that people simplify environments and thus make them less resilient:
One of the reasons that the insect and the disease have been so devastating is that the citrus groves are dominated by a single type of orange, said Dr. Matthew Chew, a biologist at Arizona State University. “Any agricultural pest does threaten the food supply,” he said, “but what also threatens the food supply is the choices we have made about agriculture and standardizing it.” Usually, it’s human activity, from pollution to habitat destruction to extermination to increasingly narrow farming practices, that causes the greatest harm to ecosystems and provides a foothold for alien species. The pest takes the blame.
The author creates a landslide of "usually" out of a grain of truth, ending with a blanket statement. I see species like the devastating insect Emerald ash borer and the Kudzu-like vine porcelainberry behaving invasively regardless of the health of an ecosystem. Same thing in the previous century, with Dutch elm disease and chestnut blight. Are bats susceptible to white nose syndrome because of altered habitat, or is it because a fungus they lack resistance to was introduced from Europe? Those of us who are concerned about invasive species are also concerned about pollution, habitat destruction and industrial agriculture. All these factors interact.
Pearce agrees that there are situations in which an organism, introduced or not, may become a problem for humans. Those situations, he maintains, are not as clear-cut as we’d think. The zebra mussel, for example, is the great villain of invasive species. The New York Times described it in 2014 as a “silent invader” responsible for “vast economic and ecological damage” around the Great Lakes, after its accidental transportation from Central Asia in the ballast of cargo ships in the 1980s.
But that’s not the whole story. The mussel first made it to Lake Erie, which was so polluted in the 1960s and ’70s that it was declared “dead.” The mussels thrived because they encountered little resistance, because so few creatures remained. But as Pearce explains, the Great Lakes owe a debt of gratitude to the hardy mussel: It could not only thrive in Erie’s fetid waters, but also filter pollution and initiate the Herculean task of making the lake livable again.
This account is highly misleading. Though I have a degree in water quality, I mostly checked some reputable-sounding internet sources, and this is what I came up with: the zebra mussel did not "initiate" cleanup of Lake Erie. Those efforts began much earlier. Though the zebra and quagga mussels introduced accidentally from eastern Europe have helped make the water more clear, their vast numbers and big appetites have also altered important ecological processes, and may have contributed to a decline in the lake's water quality that began about fifteen years ago. Clear water allows sunlight to reach deeper into the lake, increasing harmful algal blooms. A list of negative impacts following introduction of zebra and quagga mussels can be found at this link.

It would be interesting if the Fred Pearce mentioned in this article is the same Fred Pearce who wrote a column for the New Scientist calling it a disgrace that biological stowaways are still being spread around the world in the ballast of ships.
This surprising pattern emerges in other cases, while the promised alien species apocalypse rarely happens. Ken Thompson, plant biologist at the University of Sheffield and the author of “Where Do Camels Belong? Why Invasive Species Aren’t All Bad,” agrees: “We should be a bit more grateful,” he says, “that given how totally we’ve messed up that there are animals and plants that are still happy to live in these places.”
Pearce worries that seeing off successful non-natives and invasives would sacrifice the one quality that they exhibit so aggressively: the ability to survive. “The problem is that when we root out invasive species, we’re reducing nature’s resilience,” he said. This fits squarely in the mounting evidence that the principle of natural selection works over decades, not just over eons.
There's that "mounting evidence", much like the "growing minority", with no evidence beyond a couple books written by Pearce and Thompson, of unknown quality. I read another book in this genre, Beyond the War on Invasive Species by Tao Orion, and found its logic deeply flawed.

My thirty or so years of experience with habitat restoration suggest that most native species have tremendous vitality and resilience. The invasive species' "ability to survive" is rooted not so much in innate vitality but in a lack of predators, given that they typically leave their predators behind them when transported to new regions where they didn't exist before. An invasive plant, for instance, tends not to be consumed by local herbivores, so its proliferation makes the landscape less edible to wildlife over time, and weakens the food chain. This is not making nature more resilient.
THE WAY we regard alien species is wrapped up in how we view nature and our place in it — or not in it. EU legislation targets only those “alien invasive” species that arrived in their new habitat as a consequence of human intervention. “It starts from the very beginning that humans are not part of the natural world,” said Thompson.
This is a phony argument, and if accurately quoted, doesn't bode well for Mr. Thompson's book.
The implication is that we have severed ourselves from the natural world to such a degree that we don’t recognize that we are living in an ecosystem and that we’re probably the most invasive species in it. How do we care for something that we must also shape to our own needs?
Each new species introduction represents a potential alteration of ecosystem processes, and human travel has radically increased that rate of impactful change. We need to acknowledge the potentially harmful impacts our hyperactivity on earth may have, learn to the best of our ability how nature works, and assume responsibility for stewardship commensurate with our unprecedented power and influence. Denying the negative impact of invasive species is really an all too convenient denial of responsibility.
Which brings us back to our original question: What about the starlings? We could spend time and money trying to exterminate them, more than we already do; certainly, other governments are taking that line. This July, the government of New Zealand announced an ambitious plan to eradicate all of the island nation’s introduced predatory species by 2050, including, but not limited to, cats, rats, possums, and stoats. While conservationists in New Zealand lauded the move, others in the field questioned its ethics and efficacy.
To learn about why New Zealand is seeking to eradicate mammals from its many islands, read Elizabeth Kolbert's The Big Kill in the New Yorker. They're actually having some success.
Extermination is costly, can be grisly, and doesn’t always work. It also might just make things worse, damaging ecosystems that have forged new balances. “I’m a big believer in picking fights you’re going to win, and that’s a fight you’re not going to win,” said Thompson. Though he does not concur with Thompson’s perspective on invasives, Rohrbaugh agrees — any management plan needs to take into account the “cascading effects” of removal, “especially if those invasive species have been in place for dozens or hundreds of years, and they have become part of that ecosystem.”
Lots of negativity and pessimism here. It's definitely important to pick fights one can win, but talk of "grisly" extermination sounds funny coming after concern that we've "severed ourselves from the natural world". Nature can be grisly. It functions through one organism eating another. If someone releases an overgrown pet python into the everglades, is that person responsible for every animal that python then eats, and all the animals its progeny eat? And why does the author question the intentional eradication undertaken in New Zealand, while claiming that what released pythons are doing in the Everglades is somehow okay and natural?
And even then, even after forming a conservation solution based on the best available science, “those management solutions might be entirely impractical and might do more harm to an ecosystem than doing nothing at all,” he said.
Ahh, all is pessimism and futility. Better to let things be what they will be. This genre fits well with the denial that anything can be done about climate change, and the view that government is by nature incompetent and wasteful. The underlying tenet is that intentional collective action is futile, and unintentional action--whether it be the collateral climate damage caused by our well-intended lifestyles, or the damage caused by the often unintentional spreading of species around the world--is nothing we need take responsibility for and act to mitigate. 

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