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.”

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Invasive Plants & Butterfiles - A Collision of Desires

Spring has sprung in Washington and with it comes the fulfillment of the pent up urge to go out side and garden, to become one with nature, and to do good. On Twitter this morning (@InvasiveNotes) I found this tweet: @ionxchange: 75 Plants That Attract Butterflies Mistkitscom blog . This inherent goodness and wholesomeness of planting flowers and encouraging pollinators especially the ostentatious, non threatening butterflies compels attention and gives form to a garden plan of action. The dream of shirking clouds of summer iridescence draws us to lists of plants that are known to attract the butterfly.

If you truly want butterflies of course you need to provide them plants that help them more than just at the end of their lives. For before there is the wonder of the shimmering display of summer garden visitors there is the caterpillar eating its way through your garden securing a resting place mostly oblivious as it hide from your brood of song birds waiting for a meal. And worse perchance if you use chemicals, the caterpillar which can reduce a favorite spring plant to a stems and stalks is easily killed by wanton chemical applications. While butterflies are feeding off nectar and are not to particular as to the source, they are usually specialists in their fuzzy not so glorious to some caterpillar stage of life. In other words caterpillars tend to be specialists feeding on only one species of plant, not necessarily the one that you would plant for summer season flowering fireworks. And sometime the plant species with which they have evolved is one you also want to eat, thereby creating a collision of desires. Do you want the parsley, fennel and dill or the Black swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes asterius Stoll?

To me then falls the Grinch’s role of pointing our gingerly that there is a collision of desires lurking within the wonderfully created list. Invasive species, garden thugs that quickly climb the garden fence and escape into natural areas upsetting the native balance and sometimes displacing most of the native diversity prized in natural settings can be dangerous beauties. (Dangerous Beauty and other Invasive Species Traps Monday, May 25, 2009) In our fascination with homogenizing the world’s landscapes, we seek garden plants that will grow from Arizona to Maine and include Alaska and Hawaii too. Armed with this list we select those plants that are known to produce nectar in quantities readily available for the more flamboyant lepidopterans. We are not choosing plants for the caterpillars and in fact our one-size-fits-all lists have been written in part show-case plants that are not greatly affected by the endless hunger of caterpillars.

So in come waltzing the invasive species: butterfly bush, (non native) honeysuckles, privet, (non native) wisteria disguised because in deed they will supply nectar to butterflies even as they do not provide a food source for the caterpillars. Because invasive species are a global issue determined locally, what is invasive in your area o=is not necessarily invasive for some one in another part of the country. Many perennials like some species of daylilies, ground covers like English ivy, and beautiful shade trees like saw-tooth oaks may be invasive in certain situations and locations. I add the oak because all oaks are great food sources for 100s of different butterfly and moth species, but not all oaks are necessarily appropriate in your garden. Be careful what you wright; gardening is both a simple pleasure and a complex philosophy filled with dangerous beauty.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Invasive species - rambling thoughts

Discussion today about invasive species are couched in reports, papers and research that stretch all the way back to the 1980s with roots reaching even to the late 1950s. Conflated with all the complexities inherent in invasive species is the idea that invasive species are somehow a new public policy issue. When combined with the inverse issue of endangered (native) species the perfect storm of suspended disbelief comes into focus as today’s ecologists find themselves continuously thwarted in every policy effort at the level of the disinterested, unengaged, fully uninformed voter. Amazingly no matter how dire the issue, how carefully the disaster and damage are described, the public is unmotivated and unconcerned, and unwilling to spend the funds to combat and mitigate the problem.

Buried deeply in the American psyche and to some extend Western Culture is the problem of nature. Defining nature, natural, naturalized, native, artifice and artificial, as well as art and international and cosmopolitan rises above the domain of science. Knowing the hardships of the European attempts to establish communities in North America such as the Norse colony of Vinland is crucial to understanding invasive species issues today. In current discussions there unspoken ideas surface that European settlement was a foregone condition and that nature therefore is something that was “losing” the contest from the beginning. This view however is hindsight of John Muir, expounded upon by Aldo Leopold and codified by Charles Elton, amplified by the modern students of ecology. Unremarked is the fact that at least until 1800 there was every reason to believe that the great experiment would fail; the experiment of surviving on this unrelenting, wild continent.

John Muir saw that technology was ‘winning’ the battle, and that at the present rate the last great “untouched” places could be gone if a new value system could not be created to delimited special places. Aldo Leopold refined what it could meant by the idea of a landscape and more importantly to create and manage one, and Elton among many achievements grabbed the idea of invasive species harm so that a new generation could begin to understand the critical importance of finding a away to control the aexotic, alien, newlydefined 'unnatural' invasions. In doing so the three seers of the ecological preservation movement led a revolution describing a new value system that taught a new generation how to see and understand the world. And this new world view seemed to its followers to overturn the basics of gardening and farming. The old ways must be at best uniformed and at worse lacking in scientific rigor.

However the early colonists were not scientific ignoramuses, and in fact were rather more well philosophically grounded, understanding that science was a tool to help with value system management. They were not part of the Age of Enlightenment for nothing; for concurrent with the efforts to survive in the wilderness went the debates as to what constituted a native, and under what conditions a non native could become naturalized, if ever. Participants in the community discussion included prominent Americans such as Jefferson and European thinkers such as Raynal as well other European and American natural philosophers who happened to be practitioners of the science of horticulture and therefore accomplished gardeners. In addition the conversations of native and naturalized were wrapped around the concept of resource appropriation and use as well as reconstitution, revitalization or as we now call the concepts and dynamics of sustainability. The first Europeans thought the idea of species included humans and therefore applied the labels native and naturalized both to themselves and to their surroundings. For them it was self-evident that if a person could become naturalized then so could a plant or animal. Early European settlers and thinkers did not see mankind as apart from nature but solidly in the middle of nature as a participant.