Sunday, June 01, 2008

Invasive species in Alaska

Invasive species issues are wickedly inconvenient. In May, the National Invasive Species Council Advisory Committee (ISAC) met in Alaska. ISAC considered the question of bio-fuels and decided to explore invasive species and alternative energy sources in depth at its fall meeting in November in Washington D.C. The committee heard and focused upon matters of early detection and rapid response, EDRR. Alaska, because of its small population in relation to its size, still has great areas which have little or no invasive species impact. What invasive species concerns it does have, are just becoming evident and offer a good place to put EDRR to work.

Nothing about invasive species is simple, and Alaska provides an opportunity to see the effects of the wicked inconvenience starting with the fundamental problem of definition. Some people have chosen to introduce the northern pike into waters around Anchorage, “ ... northern pike are not native to south-central Alaska. They have been illegally released into lakes and streams on the Kenai Peninsula, in the Anchorage area, and in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. These illegally-stocked pike spread through connected water bodies and change the entire balance of species — the “species complex” — in their new environment. Illegally-stocked northern pike have especially devastating impacts on juvenile fish, particularly silver salmon and rainbow trout. And because pike were illegally stocked into south-central lakes, the Department has had to discontinue stocking at those lakes, thus reducing fishing opportunities.”[i] It must be in part an assumption made by some that since the fish lives in Alaska it is native and therefore a good idea to expand its range. After all how can a native be invasive? This movement of a species is an example of the first and seventh axioms of a wicked problem, that there is no definitive formulation and that the problem is not understood until after formulation of a solution so stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.

Attempts to solve the challenge of the northern pike after introduction create challenges of implementation which as axiom sixteen notes will have consequences, and may cause additional problems. Pesticide use or other toxins to purge the deteriorated system may cause down stream troubles, while doing nothing may create long term ecosystem imbalances. Education and out reach try to prevent further introductions and are seen in axiom fourteen which states that wicked problems are often "solved" (as well as they can be...) through group efforts.

Alaskans are introducing exotic plant species perhaps because of traditional cultural understandings of beauty (Invasive Species Challenge). Climate change may have some bearing on decisions made in landscape choices and calls to mind that it is a wicked inconvenience that invasive species can be considered to be a symptom of another problem such as climate change as found in axiom eight. The desire for familiar plantings and for a certain homogenization of our surroundings brings Lythrum to Alaska. Alaska is mostly owned by the people of the United States, but in urban private land holdings there is a strong desire to lead an unfettered life with few constraints other than those found in the extremes of the environment. Planting what one wants is not yet seen as potentially damaging to the very nature of Alaska. The diversity and majesty of the Alaskan landscape is at least partially a result of land’s great differences and unique eco-systems. The introduction of lower 48 state plants and animals will reduce the difference and some of the reason to visit as a tourist.

Of course our entire society is based on a sameness quotient. We want diversity but only after the second day of a visit. We want our fast food burgers to taste the same whether we live in Maryland or Alaska, our airports to be laid out in some familiar pattern. It is only after we acclimate that we seek diversity knowing we have familiarity to which to return. Some Alaskans are aware of the onslaught of invasive species; they are working to hold their own on private property, but are seeking help on federal lands. Because invasive species like Lythrum are already out of control in many lower 48 states, it is hard for Alaskans to get federal help for a pest plant already loose. For some down below it seems to be a lost cause, but for Alaskans now is the time to act for they can perhaps reverse the invasion before the cost of control is too great. The difficulty found in convincing decision makers is found in axiom five: Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly. To consider Alaska’s budding invasive plant challenges in light of solutions which have not worked in other locations is to fail to understand axiom five.

The wicked inconvenience for Alaska is invasive species. Alaskans will have to choose to protect their scenic assets which can provide jobs into the future. They could extract immediate dividends from the environmental capital which is the local environment for near term comfort or short term gain. If protecting the grandeur of the landscape is part of a long term strategy than Alaskans will need our help as the major land owner in the state. Alaska will need to learn from mistakes and missed opportunities in the lower 48 states. They will have to make a choice about fishing for what is found locally or live with the biological deserts which result from the importation of species from different eco-systems. Short term fishing or gardening with a definite end as to diversity loss or long term renewable resources which keep Alaska America’s last frontier are some of the wickedly inconvenient issues of invasive species questions in Alaska.

[i] Alaska Department of Fish and Game:

1 comment:

Lori Z said...

What a great summary of the situation here in Alaska. Troy and I continue to find ways to get the message through to those who can make a difference. We appreciate all the time and attention that ISAC gave to Alaska's issue with invasive species and look forward to being the state that fended off the invasion!!

Troy and Lori Zaumseil