Sunday, June 13, 2010

Invasive Species Impact akin to Oil Spills without the Publicity

          Invasive species climb our trees choking them to death, they cling to our forests and smother them, they coat the surfaces of our waterways, and they cover our landscapes altering the resources we use in our lives. They are the biological equivalent of an oil spill changing the interactions of local and regional ecosystems and altering our lives directly and indirectly. Invasive species and oil spills remove resources and kill jobs. Invasive species and oil spills change the resources humans may take from their environment. Both invasive species and oil spills kill fish, destroy wetlands and prevent human use of natural and managed landscapes.    

               [Image: dead ash trees: Forest health and biodiversity news from the Atlantic Forestry Centre]

          Recent headlines speak to the effects of these human induced ecological changes. “Invasive species [are] destroying Missouri’s economy and forests” while along the Gulf Coast  the long term impact of the oil spill will be catastrophic and the environment in the area will be severely damaged. The speed of ecosystem change overwhelms the expected resources and changes the relationships among human beneficiaries of the environment. The oil is killing the fishing and recreation industries; a solution to stop drilling will destroy the port and oil economies and attendant jobs. Invasive species sold as pets alter recreational use of local landscapes and impact hunting, while stopping the sale impacts a major industry serving the needs of the public. The same situation is true of the nursery industry and a few of the plants its customers want to buy. In an effort to adapt a local landscape, some garden plants escape and alter the surrounding landscape impact food production and recreational activities.

          Human activity has always impacted the environment, and at a local personal level man has been busy disturbing the ecosystem he lives in since the discovery of agriculture. What is new is that there are now 6 billion people actively “plowing” up the world, and the ecosystems are responding faster. As we alter or destroy large charismatic species, microbial activity as well as larger species readily able to adapt are rapidly evolving with us. Whether they will continue to evolve in support of our human needs is not yet clear for these species have their own trajectory into the future.

          The spread of invasive species and the spread of oil have much in common but in one important way they are very different. The damage real and predicted are covered in minute detail 24 hours a day; the even greater damage of invasive species, calculated to exceed 130 billion per year, is unknown, mostly unreported and completely ignored by most people. The death of charismatic mega fauna from invasive species happens quietly and continuously but over longer span of time and geography and thus by the time the past species is located it is way too late do do anything about the damage caused by the invasive predator. We are well aware of the loss of the marshes now occurring, but are strangely silent on the millions of dead ash trees across many mid west and now east coast states.

          The spread of oil is a tragedy in a three minute viral ready world. The lack of on going continuous risk assessments and risk management plans is obvious in the gulf oil crisis. The despair, outrage and dismay is palatable; the same cannot be said for invasive species impacts and the even bigger change in ecosystems and the resources they provide us.

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