Sometimes It’s A Losing Battle

My work takes me into the woods during a good part of the year. While most people are looking at the views, admiring wildflowers, and trying to see wildlife, I’m constantly scanning the area for enemies. When I’m out on the water, or standing on a stream bank, I’m looking for them as well. Am I a paranoid nut, or suffering from PTSD? No, I’m a biologist, and I’m looking for something else: Invasive species. They’re out there, some are here, and some are coming.

“The enemies” are numerous. They have names, like garlic mustard, purple loosestrife, Eurasian watermilfoil, water chestnut, emerald ash borer, Asian longhorn beetle, hemlock wooly adelgid, spiny water flea, golden clam, and snakehead. That’s a short list. Each state has a very long list, and New York is no different. Some are here already. This is garlic mustard:

Doesn’t look like much, does it? This plant is smaller than usual, normally it’s a foot or two high. Left alone (and this wasn’t) it will form patches that choke out everything, forming a monoculture. That little flower will eventually form seed pods with hundreds of seeds, which can remain in the soil for up to 10 years before sprouting. It’s here in the Adirondacks, and I’ve pulled quite a lot of it over the past several years.

It’s just one of many, though. A recent news story highlighted another example of the problems we face: Clams befouling Tahoe invade Adirondack Lake.

A thumbnail-sized clam blamed for clouding the azure bays of Lake Tahoe high in the Sierra Nevada has now turned up in a mountain-ringed Adirondack lake renowned for its limpid, spring-fed waters.

It’s just another in a series of species that have managed to make it into this country, and pose a serious threat to the forests, streams, and economy of the country. For the past several years as I’ve driven around the state, I’ve seen trees with what looks like a triangular purple kite in them. Art? No, they’re traps for the Emerald Ash Borer, also known as the EAB.

This invasive pest has had a devastating impact on communities that now face significant tree removal costs associated with dead or dying ash trees that pose a threat to public safety.

States which become infested could lose billions of dollars in forest products and quarantines imposed by state and federal agencies may have serious consequences for plant and wood products industries. Severe damage may also occur within the tourist industry with the loss of tree cover in campgrounds.

This particular pest has already caused serious losses in Michigan, and is now found as far East as NY and down to Maryland. It joins the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, the Asian Longhorned Beetle, and the Sirex Woodwasp as serious threats to forests. In the water, we have Eurasian watermilfoil, spiny waterflea, didymo (rock snot), and several kinds of fish. On land, feral swine.   Every year,  I hear of “yet another invasive species.”  Chinese Mitten Crabs in the Hudson, where once they were a problem  “out west.”   How did it get here?  Ship ballast water.   Others are “dumped” by people who purposely had them for aquariums or as pets.   Some think it’s “odd news” when a 3 pound goldfish is caught.   It’s not “odd,”  it doesn’t belong there.   There’s a hunt for pythons in Florida right now.  Why?  Well, people have been letting their “pets” go when they get too big, and now there is a serious problem.

They all have something in common: They don’t belong here. They’re introduced either purposely or by accident, but once here, they have no natural controls. Nothing eats them if they’re plants, nothing preys on them – or does so very successfully – if they’re animals. The factors which keep them in check in their native lands aren’t here, so they take over.  They also cause billions of dollars in damage. It can be from timber loss, fishery collapse, crop loss, or other economic losses. Ask any utility along the Great Lakes how much it costs to keep their pipes clear of zebra mussels, as just one small example.

What can we do about them?  First is to get serious about keeping new ones out.  There are new regulations about ballast water, but even those were fought by industry.  Other rules relating to how we inspect, what are required, and who is responsible when it comes to importing new species need to be promulgated and enforced.   It can be something as simple as ensuring that shipping pallets are made of kiln-dried wood, which would have prevented the emerald ash borer and Asian Longhorned Beetle from entering this country.  We need to consider and control the “pets” or “ornamental species” we are bringing in, who is allowed to keep them and how they should be handled if the person is unable to manage them anymore.

Second is to do a better and faster job of containment and control.  Often, by the time something is recognized as “a problem” and control measures are implemented, it’s become a serious and widespread problem.  The EAB is a good example of this.   First discovered in Detroit, it was a small localized problem.  Then it was found popping up around the state.  The reason?  People were cutting down dying ash trees, and using them for firewood when they went camping.  By the time Michigan got serious, it was out of control there.   Too bad for Michigan?  Yes, but by that time people from Michigan had also gone camping in Ohio.  By the time Ohio recognized it had a problem and cracked down, it was in New York and Pennsylvania.  By the time New York “got serious,” it was already across the state and now Connecticut has it.   In each instance, the problem was that it took time before the implementation of serious control measures were implemented, and by that time, it was too late.  We need better coordination, better identification procedures, and to be proactive when an invasive is found that could impact us, even if it is in another state – at the moment.

Third, is to to better job of determining just how widespread a given problem is and develop new and better methods of control.  Sometimes “out of the box” thinking may be helpful, as I pointed out in a previous posting.  Coming up with  “non-sustainable” uses for various invasives may give additional incentives to getting rid of them.   Better education of the public, as well as industries is also a good start.

Finally, there’s the realistic side.  We’re not always going to win.  Ask any southerner about kudzu, other areas about multiflora roses.   Some are no longer considered “invasives,” but have moved to “naturalized.”  Here’s a picture of one:

Yes, the dandelion isn’t a native.  But,  just because we can – and will – lose some doesn’t mean that the battle isn’t worth fighting.  So I keep on scanning the woods and the water, looking for the enemy.

Categories: Environment | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Sometimes It’s A Losing Battle

  1. Some of the python problem in Florida is due to people releasing pets. More, however, began when Hurricane Andrew destroyed several exotic pet stores and washed their contents into the Everglades. Admittedly, the pythons would not have been in those stores without a pet market … but … that’s how the wild breeding population got established.

    • Storm damage is also how the asian carp got established in the Mississippi River system. The problem is that besides that they were here in the first place is that no one ever went back and did anything to minimize or stop it when it was just “some out there,” it’s only until it’s out of control that various people go “hey, there’s a problem.” 😥

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