Nativism is shooting us in the foot
A few months ago, we told you about one of the many projects to eradicate a plant species that is considered non-native. In this case, smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) is native to the East and Gulf coasts of the US, but is considered non-native on the West Coast, despite the fact that it has been here for over one hundred years. About $12 million was spent in the past 10 years on this effort, and the projection is that another $16 million will be spent in the next 10 years.
When we told you about this project, we speculated that it was having a negative effect on an endangered species, the Clapper Rail. The non-native Spartina provides cover that is superior to the native variety of Spartina. It grows more densely and it doesn’t die back during the winter months, as the native variety does. We also pointed out that the Clapper Rail is abundant on the East and Gulf coasts and is only considered endangered on the West Coast.
Since we told you about this eradication project, we’ve learned a few things about the Clapper Rail that we hope will interest you, as it does us.
- This seems to be another case in which native plant advocates are looking for a scapegoat, when they should be looking at themselves. Native plant advocates would like you to believe that the Clapper Rail is endangered on the West Coast because of the introduction of non-native red fox. The red fox is yet another creature that nativists wish to eradicate in the Bay Area. Apparently it has not occurred to them that the red fox is native to the East Coast, where the Clapper Rail is thriving. Hmmm, that seems like a bit of contradiction, No?
- We have learned of the displacement of Clapper Rails from marshes in which the non-native Spartina in being eradicated.
- The Point Reyes Bird Observatory, a nationally recognized institution that conducts research on birds, has concluded that the Spartina eradication project is having a negative effect on the Clapper Rail.
Evidence that eradication of Spartina alterniflora is harmful to Clapper Rails
In July, a Clapper Rail was seen and photographed at Heron’s Head in southeastern San Francisco. There was quite a bit of excitement about this sighting because a Clapper Rail had not been seen in San Francisco for decades. That excitement dissipated when we learned more about where this bird came from, which provided a probable reason for the move.
The Clapper Rail was wearing a radio collar that had been put on him and 109 other rails by the USGS to track their movements. He had moved from Colma Creek, 11 km south of Heron’s Head, which is one of nearly 200 Spartina “control sites” in the San Francisco Estuary. The bird sighted at Heron’s Head is one of three Clapper Rails that have left Colma Creek since 2007, when the radio collars were placed. The Spartina control project has been going on for nearly 10 years, so we have no way of knowing how many Clapper Rails were displaced prior to 2007.
In October 2011, the Point Reyes Bird Observatory issued the first-ever “State of the Birds Report for San Francisco Bay:” “Based on decades of monitoring, 29 partners detail the actions needed to keep birds and their habitats thriving as sea levels rise and extreme storm events increase due to global climate change.” This report acknowledges the role that the Spartina eradication project plays in the continuing decline of the population of Clapper Rails in the Bay Area:
“The Clapper Rail’s rebound during the 1990’s was possibly due to fox control but also coincided with the rapid invasion of a tall non-native plant (invasive Spartina). This invader benefited rails because it provided nesting habitat and protection from predators and high tides. Beginning in the mid-2000s, the rail population declined sharply, due in part to the removal of invasive Spartina, which threatens tidal flat and marsh ecosystems as a whole. This recent decline may be leveling off, but the future of Clapper Rails in San Francisco Bay remains tenuous.”
This is another example of the harmful obsession with non-native plants, which seems to trump other considerations, such as the welfare of the animals that benefit from the plants. As is often the case with such eradication projects, Spartina is being eradicated with an herbicide, imazapyr. This is a new herbicide about which little is known. The analysis which was done to justify its use in the Spartina eradication project admits that no studies have been done on its effect on shorebirds, including the endangered Clapper Rail. The Material Safety Data Sheet mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency tells us that imazapyr is “not readily biodegradable.” So, in the event that we eventually learn that this herbicide is harmful to shorebirds and/or to us, we can be assured that it will still be in the environment, in the nearly 200 sites in the San Francisco Estuary on which it is currently being sprayed. Imazapyr is also being sprayed–sometimes from helicopters–in hundreds of places along the West Coast, including in other states. (A new post on Save Sutro reports more alarming information about imazapyr.)
The cost of nativism
This is an example of the harmful effects of attempting to eradicate non-native species. It reminds us of a recent editorial in the New York Times about the new law in Alabama which is considered the most extreme anti-immigration law in the country. The opponents of immigration are delighted with the new law. The farmers of Alabama are warning us that they cannot replace the immigrants who are fleeing the state. Most of the work in the country’s agriculatural fields and orchards is being done by immigrants. These are jobs that Americans are no longer willing to do. This is just one of many unintended consequences of such xenophobic extremism. We consider the Spartina eradication project another example of nativism run amok.