Thursday, March 25, 2010

Invasive pythons & party politics - Revenge of the Republicans

Python in the Everglades picture by author who was not focused on framing but rather on running just in case

An article by Kurt Repanshek House Republicans Say Interior Secretary's Proposed Snake Ban Bad for Business Posted March 25th, 2010 certainly brought me up short first thing this morning and gave me pause to think about why I should care about invasive species. In the clear, stark exposition of value ladened absolutes, some politicians and their stakeholders have found a certainty that their right to make a living trumps any right to preserve a mostly native and, for now, functioning ecosystem. This, in a nut shell, sums up the challenges of invasive species: Do I have a right to use natural resources in any fashion that I choose without public regulation or interference? Are by-products of my actions that affect a ecological resource a cost that should be born by me or by those people whose use of the resources that might now be negatively impacted? And most importantly, how exactly does one place an immediate economic value on a natural resource that has not yet been exploited or valued by bankers, investors or their accountants?

The invasive species controversy ranges those who feel that nature needs to be shaped, scaped, corralled and tamed against those constituencies who, for various reasons, want to preserve, conserve or simply serve nature’s elaborate complex biomes. In my blog entitled: Pythons, People & Pathways: Invasive Species Slither In, I wrote about the conflicted cast of characters and their desires. The disagreement boils down to a short term personal right to do or possess whatever one want versus a long term public or social goal. The immediacy of the lure of beauty is a powerful and compelling force. And yes, charismatic reptiles are beautiful for there is no arguing with taste; even the Romans knew to stay at arms length from such disputes (non est disputandum gustibus) being a popular quote) and even perhaps even had a healthy respect for snakes. As I noted in Lythrum & Lionfish - Invasive Beauties as well as Dangerous Beauty and other Invasive Species Traps, the powerful draw of beauty and our human desire to possess it obscures the issues of novel species introduction into the ecological systems that support our quality of life.

The report on Republican opposition to regulating constrictor introductions into the United States suggests that pet owners who might release their over-grown pets into the wild are not a realistic proximate cause but instead a hurricane‘s destruction of a warehouse is proffered as a more a more probable early cause of the introduction of the non-native predator. Of course this puts the burden back on business as the warehouse existed to supply business and is hardly helpful as a reason not to regulate. This idea that pet owners are not at fault and business should not be constrained is based upon the assumption that the destruction of the Everglades ecosystem as we know it a cost of the hobby and a externalized cost of doing business. The bottom line so to speak is that if there is a market, and no personal harm is being done under current law, business has a right to be left alone to meet the needs of their customers. The report states that the US government snake supply revenue to be $3.6 to $10.7 million and notes that this is reported to be a gross undervaluation while at the same time claiming that losses for private pet dealers, pet supply stores and companies such Delta, FedEx, and UPS might combine to total $1.6-$1.8 billion (Source: U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers.) Even assuming the associations number to be true, does that mean that the Everglades are worth less? How do address climatic boundaries if we go down the regulatory path? More interesting than the factor of ten disparity is the statement that “The scope of this “injurious” listing is unprecedented and would cause severe economic pain for thousands of Americans by destroying livelihoods and possibly exacerbating the problem of constrictor snakes in South Florida as snake owners and breeders could then release their newly illegal snakes into the wild.” Offered as a factual defense, the statement notes that constrictors can in numbers harm natural resources which is the whole point of the restriction in trade in the first place.

The third line of reasoning seems to suggest that armed hunters could fix the problem of invasion that is a non-existent problem in the opinion of some law makers in Washington DC. One wonders why, if there is no real problem, we should need to arm hunters to take care of an over supply that is at least in part caused by the importation and supply to a market which the Secretary of Interior is trying to control. Prevention which is always cheaper than the mitigation is a fact that seems to have gone to ground. I wish I were in a position to help bring the parties together for a philosophic conversation to lay the groundwork to address each stakeholder’s valid claim.

What clearly needs to happen is a good faith dialogue between the two sides, instead of turning the challenge into a political campaign football loaded with potential unintended consequences. Invasive species issues are a wicked inconvenience that includes multiple disagreeing stakeholder seeking a linear solution for a non-linear problem. The early questions are the ones of definition, responsibility and accountability. Do we agree on what an invasive species is? Do one have a personal right to own a plant or pet that might escape and may cause harm to an ecological system? Can an exotic species eventually become naturalized and part of a functioning ecological system? How many pythons can be released accidentally into a system before there is an irreversible problem? Who ultimately pays for the clean up of a harmful species introduction? And, there needs to be a reading and discussion of the Invasive Species Definition Clarification and Guidance White Paper, Submitted by the Definitions Subcommittee of the Invasive Species Advisory Committee (ISAC), Approved by ISAC April 27, 2006: “An invasive species is a non-native species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human, animal, or plant health. The National Invasive Species Management Plan indicates that NISC will focus on non-native organisms known to cause or likely to cause negative impacts and that do not provide an equivalent or greater benefit to society. In the technical sense, the term ‘invasion’ simply denotes the uncontrolled or unintended spread of an organism outside its native range with no specific reference about the environmental or economic consequences of such spread or their relationships to possible societal benefits. However, the policy context and subsequent management decisions necessitate narrowing what is meant and what is not meant by the term invasive species. Essentially, we are clarifying what is meant and not meant by “causing harm” by comparing negative effects caused by a non-native organism to its potential societal benefits. Complications concerning the concept of invasive species arise from differing human values and perspectives. Differing perceptions of the relative harm caused or benefit gained by a particular organism are influenced by different values and management goals. If invasive species did not cause harm, we would not be nearly as concerned. Perceptions of relative benefit and harm also may change as new knowledge is acquired, or as human values or management goals change.”


Wallace Kaufman said...

A "good faith dialogue" first requires that neither side stereotype the other and thus try to understand the other's point of view and representing it fairly.

Thus it is important to note that the opposition to the bill is not a welcome to all invasive species. The opposition objected to, “The scope of this “injurious” listing".

The positive approach would be to see this as an offer to accept a more limited scope.

Also, by speaking of "harm" to the environment, you automatically polarize the issue. Understandably from one perspective most invasives harm the previous natural system. From another perspective, equally valid in science, the new species 'changes' the system and creates a new dynamic.

The values assigned are created not by nature but by human perspectives, preferences, economics, aesthetics, and assessments of management burdens.

These prerequisites for constructive dialogue or mediation apply to all parties. I have focused on your side of the issue because that is the only side that is adequately described in your blog.

John Peter Thompson said...

Wallace Kaufman said that I was polarizing the issue by not stating that the valuations of nature are an human affair. I agree, my previous blogs make that clear.

He notes that the dialogue is or should be about preserving what is or enhancing what could be. I agree.

Wallace Kaufman states that the opposition is not to all invasive species, and my writings certainly support the position that there is a continuum of invasiveness in part determined by how we define the issue and the ecosystem impacted.

I also agree that the stance of the opposition is an invitation to conversation and some eventual moderated consensus.

I would love the opportunity to write a joint blog or a blogal conversation on the valuation of ecosystem services, novel ecosystems, and the value of preservation.

Wallace Kaufman said...

I didn't read John's reply to my comment until late October when someone mentioned seeing it. I'd be glad to try a joint blog or blogersation (or whatever neologism fits).

Meanwhile, rereading the blog brought to mind that people of different political perspectives often favor different invasives. While I doubt the Republican Party is unanimous or even in the majority in favor of Everglades pythons, I suspect we would find a majority of Democrats against removing mustangs from Western rangelands, donkeys from the Virgin Islands, or ponies from Chincoteague Island. But maybe both Republicans and Democrats would get misty eyed about domesticating or killing Misty of Chincoteague.

About the pythons, the libertarian thought springs to mind, that if ownership came with the burden of proper disposal and liability, a relatively innocuous solution might be to require an ownership chip in the snake similar to those often put in dogs. The liability potential might create a risk-reward situation that would make further debate and law unnecessary.