Invasive species, impact water supplies, impair hunting and fishing opportunities, interfere with energy production, exacerbate wildfires, damage America’s agriculture, and drive native species to extinction. In Fiscal Year 2020, the U.S. Department of the Interior alone is investing an estimated $143 million to manage invasive species.
In response to federal legislation, the Trump Administration in August released a draft strategic plan that provides a coordinated approach to combat this $120 billion assault on American prosperity that seeks to further align existing programs and policies across the Interior Department and to leverage additional public and private resources.
A recent report from the History channel notes that, “The history of invasive species is usually one of unforeseen consequences. When an animal, fish, insect, or plant is taken out of its original ecosystem and introduced to a new one – whether by accident or on purpose – it is less likely to have any natural predators.”
The report lists seven invasive species that continue to wreak havoc across the United States, including gypsy moths and nutria. There are many others. Nationwide, more than 6,500 foreign species have moved into the U.S., collectively causing more damage to the environment, economy, and human health than all natural disasters combined, reports the U.S. Geological Society.
Just one species – feral swine (Sus scrofa) – causes upward of $1.5 billion in damages annually to all manner of agriculture, including rice, corn, and grains, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. An estimated 6 million of these dangerous creatures roam the countryside in 35 states, notably Texas. Their incessant rooting and voracious eating destroy crops, erode soil, and uproot tree seedlings, causing deforestation. They also carry diseases, notably pseudo-rabies and swine brucellosis.
In Hawaii — far from its natural homeland of Puerto Rico (where it is cherished) — up to 20,000 coqui (a tiny tree frog with a big voice) an acre disturb the quiet, devour enough insects that native birds go hungry, and damage the ecosystem.
According to the National Park Service, the 212-square-mile island of Guam is plagued by up to 15,000 brown snakes per square mile (outnumbering humans 10 to 1) that short out electrical systems and have wiped out 10 of the 12 island’s native bird species. Over just the past four years, Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs has provided more than $12 million for the Brown Tree Snake Control program.
The NPS, however, says that rats are the worst of all invasive predators. Running free on islands, rats have devoured whole seabird colonies—even whole species. In fact, rats have caused between 40 to 60 percent of all recorded bird and reptile extinctions in the last four centuries.
Responding to what has been described as an all-out assault on the nation’s biodiversity, the Trump plan was designed to meet requirements of the John D. Dingell, Jr., Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act of 2019, and in consultation with states, Tribes, and other stakeholders. The idea is to incorporate ongoing work by the Interior Department and its partners and to respond to emerging issues driven by the priorities of state governors.
This comprehensive approach is designed to promote partnerships to bolster mutual priorities, raise awareness to motivate action, strengthen prevention practices to avoid invasive species introductions and spread, improve the coordination of early detection and rapid response efforts across jurisdictions, leverage opportunities for targeted control and eradication, and improve data collection and data management to facilitate more effective decisionmaking.
“The Trump Administration has been focused on addressing the considerable, negative impacts of invasive species by working across jurisdictional boundaries with our partners,” said Scott Cameron, Interior’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget. “The draft plan sets out a vision for effectively managing invasive species through collaborative conservation to protect our nation’s biodiversity and economy.”
But governments alone will not win this war.
In localities across America (and worldwide), people have been banding together to fight back against zebra mussels, Asian carp, Burmese pythons, and other often deadly, definitely costly invasive species. In Geneva Lake, Wisconsin, volunteers dive underwater to pull out starry stonewort by its roots in an effort to stop the invasive weed from destroying fishing and boating and overrunning native aquatic life.
Sometimes the best way to target an invasive species is to turn a negative into a positive. The lionfish, native to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, has exploded in Florida and the Caribbean. This venomous predator, with one of the highest breeding rates in the world, has gradually taken over reefs from Venezuela to New York.
The lionfish not only feasts on smaller prey fish, leaving little food for commercially valuable fish, such as snapper and tuna. It also feeds on “grazer” and “cleaner” fish which maintain the health of the reefs that provide habitat for other species – reducing native marine life by 80 to 90 percent in just five weeks in some cases. The $2.1 billion Caribbean diving industry, along with fishing and tourism, is under assault, impacting the lives of 42 million people.
The market response to the lionfish invasion has been to make its tasty white meat a popular item in restaurants and high-end grocery stores. The fly in the ointment is the fish’s poisonous spine, which requires cleaning by hand. Another problem is that, for now, the most efficient way to catch lionfish is slow, labor-intensive spearfishing that requires SCUBA gear.
PERC reports that marketing campaigns are spurring demand for lionfish fillets. The Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) published a lionfish cookbook, while Whole Foods hosted “Take a Bite Out of Lionfish,” replete with live filleting and cooking demos and lionfish recipe videos. Others are investigating making jewelry out of lionfish spines or incorporating carcass scraps in fertilizers.
Not disparaging federal and state efforts, PERC’s Jonathan Wood beams that, “With every seafood dinner, necklace, spear-fishing derby, and trap, we are one step closer to overcoming the lionfish invasion ourselves.”
Of course, not everyone is on board with government or private efforts to eradicate the harm done by invasive species. Veteran ecologist Ken Thompson, a senior research fellow in thete Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield (United Kingdom), thinks there is good evidence to suggest that the plants and animals we often vilify as invasive species only rarely threaten ecosystems.
Thompson argues that efforts to control or eliminate invasive species can be tremendously expensive, are rarely successful, and often have damaging unintended consequences [yet introducing invasive species itself often results in unintended damages]. Using the wrong herbicides to kill invasive species, for example, can damage vulnerable native species.
But Thompson says the chief culprit is not the animals, fish, insects, or plants but rather the humans who traverse the world and bring them along. In his words, “We’ve chopped down forests, built dams, and turned the whole world into a giant cattle pasture, and then we’re surprised that some species quite like what we’ve done. We shouldn’t be surprised.”
And there you have it. Humans bought Burmese pythons as “pets,” then dumped them when they grew too big – and they grew bigger, found partners, and reproduced. Humans also brought rats and zebra mussels and other species largely because they did not take the time to rid their ships of these unwanted creatures.
And now it is time to pay the piper for bringing these invaders into our nation and letting them roam free, often creating havoc for local ecosystems. It is going to take a unified nationwide effort to get the job done.