Sunday, November 6, 2022

The Changing Conversation Around Invasive Species

Recently, the debate about invasive species has become more polarized than ever, with a degree of defensiveness and anger not seen previously. The reasons for this are many, some difficult to admit to.

Chinese Clematis may be invasive, but it deserves a less bigoted name.

I attended a webinar a few weeks ago in which the presenter asserted that “invasive species” is a “militarized term.” My instinctive reaction was that this was accusatory, bordering on defamation of science, when there is clear evidence that the introduction of a species to a new ecosystem can have devastating consequences.

Spongy Moth is still a bonafide forest pest, but now has a more appropriate moniker.

Pondering his comment further, it occurred to me that most of the animals, and plants, we label as invasive have some sort of obvious and negative economic impact. We have, as a consumer culture, become conditioned to frame everything in terms of business and monetary interests rather than ecological concerns. This has become more complicated by angst over climate change, and the resulting vulnerability of humanity to emerging threats, be they viruses or “murder hornets.”

20200512-P1090983 Vespa mandarinia japonica
© Yasunori Koide and Wikimedia Commons. Asian Giant Hornet only "murders" in the beehive, but is a serious threat to apiculture because of that proclivity.

The sudden, and/or overwhelming appearance of a novel organism is going to cause alarm, and the public seldom has comprehensive, appropriate knowledge for interpretation of potential impacts. We are at the mercy of what news outlets tell us. Because traditional print, radio, and television media now compete with social media, sensationalism is the order of the day. “Click bait” banners prevail over more accurate but less provocative headlines.

© Kim Fleming and Joro Spider, Trichonephila clavata, is not currently considered invasive.

Initial forecasts can also be premature. The jury is still out on whether some recently-introduced species will become problematic. They may not. The Joro Spider is a case in point. It is locally abundant in some parts of the southeast U.S., but whether this translates to a displacement of native spiders remains an unanswered question.

We collectively have a fascination with heroes and villains, too, and there are no more menacing villains than alien-looking insects, spiders, and other arthropods. Fantasy melds with reality and it becomes difficult to separate the two if you are not scientifically literate, or have a business model that demands public hatred of a particular creature.

© USDA ARS, public domain. Spotted Lanternfly, Lycorma delicatula, adult and nymphs. This species is a potential agricultural pest of serious magnitude.

In opposition to nativism is the idea that there is no such thing as invasive species. After all, man is part of nature, and therefore our actions are natural processes. The outcomes of those activities are circumstances to which we, and other species, will adapt.

It may be no coincidence that a backlash against the idea of invasive species is more evident now that we are recognizing, and attempting to mitigate, a history of colonialism. A convincing argument could be made that White settlers are the original invasive species. Here, in North America, we annihilated and displaced Indigenous members of our own species. We enslaved others. To this day we continue missionary work and other forms of colonialism. Therefore, the idea of invasive species becomes one of self-loathing, certainly an eventual threat to White supremacy and privilege. White people do not want to see themselves as villains.

Meanwhile, we demonize human immigrants and refugees as criminals and threats to domestic labor pools. We clamor for the closure of borders to our fellow humans, but allow our boundaries to be permeated by everything else. Not that human-imposed boundaries reflect natural ones.

The Cross Orbweaver, Araneus diadematus, is an example of a naturalized arachnid in North America.

Scientists have an uphill battle in resolving these opposing perspectives and initiating constructive dialogue. Looking to the past we see how some species from foreign lands have become “naturalized” over time, becoming innocuous additions to our flora and fauna. The average citizen may be shocked to learn that dandelions are not native to the U.S. They have become a fixture in our lawnscapes, even if we are instructed to use weed-killers against them.

Myrtle Spurge, aka "Donkeytail," Euphorbia myrsinites, is classified as a noxious weed in some jurisdictions, but not everywhere.

What is lost in all of this is attribution of the modern problem of invasive species to global consumer culture. Historically, human colonists brought other species with them as a guarantee of food and other necessary resources when venturing into unknown territory. Soon after, those species and their products became valuable in trade, a way to establish meaningful and positive relationships with Indigenous peoples, or other settlers. The pace of travel was slow, and the scale of enterprise miniscule compared to twenty-first century business.

Today, we mostly covet plants and animals of far-off lands. Plants, especially, can harbor potential insect pests. The containers used to transport international commerce are frequently occupied by insects, rodents, and other organisms. We seldom make that connection between our consumer habits and the state of ecosystems around the world.

Captive Reticulated Python. Release of unwanted Burmese Pythons into the Everglades by irresponsible pet owners has been....problematic.

We cannot turn the clock back, but we should make more informed and conscientious individual choices in the marketplace. We should promote the welfare of Indigenous peoples, and actively seek their counsel and leadership in crafting a world better able to withstand climate change. A permanent end to colonialism would not be a bad thing, either.