Sunday, November 08, 2009

Invasive species, island grey foxes & collisions of desire

Invasive species issues are wickedly inconvenient. Invasive species solutions create conflicting philosophic outcomes or collisions of desires. An effort to remove an invasive species may produce unexpected consequences as the removal of the invasive plant tamarisk impacts the endangered bird, southwestern willow flycatchers. Concern about invasive species arises from two forces or interests of mankind: agriculture and conservation. Where mankind ventures, so too come companion species that stress endogenous ecosystems sometimes to the point of collapse.
An obverse of the invasive species issue is the concern and effort on behalf and for endangered species. With both issues every time the system is tweaked unintended results will occur because uncertainty is part of the equation. (picture from )

A clear example of the complicated nature of ecosystems and species manipulation is found in the conservation efforts surrounding the Santa Cruz fox. In order to preserve the fox, in the name of protecting a pristine ecosystem, mankind will bring all of his skills and knowledge of horticulture to the problem, deciding much as any gardener does which species may live in the “pristine” Garden of Eden and which must be removed. After conservationists engineer sanctuaries to protect the foxes from the golden eagle, begin a captive breeding program, remove and relocate the golden eagles to the mainland, restore the bald eagle displaced by the aforementioned golden eagles, and for good measure place the fix on the endangered species list[1], the hoped for result will be a habitat that can support the fox in the current state of its evolution. This of course is a near term even in time and will result in long term evolutionary forces coming to bear on the ecosystem and the fox itself. This is an effort to preserve a species and its ecosystem, mankind will step in to redirect the interaction that have occurred because of ma’s arrival and his alteration of the landscape and the species of the ecosystem. The works of man are seen to have altered the “natural” state of things, and thus the works of man will be brought to bear in reconstructing a “natural” state of being.

The island gray foxes, Urocyon littoralis, reportedly arrived on three of the six California Channel Islands they now inhabit some 16,000 years ago. Important to remember in the current discussion is the 6000 year length of human involvement with the island grey fox species. Humans took the fox species, which are only one-half or two-thirds the size of mainland gray foxes to three other islands. The island fox species faces evolutionary challenges including inbreeding, competition with feral cats and exposure to canine diseases, as well as development on the islands that threatens to limit their habitat and food supply.[2]

The efforts to protect the fox will require engineering the ecosystem (reversing co-evolutionary pressures) to a state of pre-industrial human interaction. To do this, we will need to commit energy (resources) and will (policy). The loss of the fox will be measured ecologically and economically. The short term cost of less development will me compared to the uncertainty of long term gain. And of course the wicked world of invasive species will loom large as we try to “humanely” exterminate what to some will look like pets, i.e. human companion species. Paraphrasing Simberloff (2003) one might ask how much information on population biology is needed to manage endogenous ecological systems.[3]

The quiet notion wrapped in romantic dogma that mankind can return the world to a pre-industrial state informs many of our choices. The loss of the fox is a metaphor for the loss of an idyllic past that never was but for a few well off members of the human race. But like the impulse that generated the English landscape movement the recognition that mankind is in major part defined by nature and that the loss of nature is a diminution of man’s being drives us forward to protect this denizen of the California isles. The loss of the fox is a symptomatic of a greater loss, that of the Rousseauian individual who lives one equal with his surroundings not a mere god in a machine.

[1]: Island Grey Fox”. accessed: (November 9th, 2009)
[2] Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. accessed: (November 9th, 2009)
[3] Conservation Biology. Volume 17 Issue 1, Pages 83 – 92. Published Online: 11 Feb 2003. ©2009, Society for Conservation Biology. accessed: (November 9th, 2009)

1 comment:

Town Mouse said...

Seems to me that without those romantic notions we'll never get legislation passed that stops logging or other highly destructive practices.

Yes, it's a complex issue, but if it takes a spotted owl to keep the last great redwoods alive a little longer, I'm happy for it.