Invasion Biology vs. The “Restoration” Industry

Daniel Simberloff gave the keynote address to the symposium of the California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC), entitled “Invasive Species Denialism and the Future of Invasion Management.”  Simberloff is the most vocal academic defender of invasion biology.  His presentation to Cal-IPC contains interesting clues about more effective strategies for the critics of invasion biology, of which I am one.  In a nutshell, Simberloff dismisses critics easily with a few waves of his hand, but he stumbles when faced with the economic and ecological costs of the methods used to eradicate so-called “invasive species.”  He can defend the theoretical hypotheses of invasion biology, but he finds it difficult to defend the “restoration” industry that invasion biology spawned, specifically the use of pesticides.

Simberloff opened his presentation with this rogue’s gallery of the critics of invasion biology.  Some readers will recognize some of these “deniers.”  If not, you might recognize some of the many books the “deniers” have published.

Simberloff categorized the criticisms of invasion biology then flipped them off, one by one.  Keep in mind as you read Simberloff’s summary that it does not do justice to the actual criticisms of invasion biology.

  • Critics say that most non-native species aren’t harmful.
    • Simberloff says we don’t know how harmful non-native species are because few are studied, their impacts are often subtle, and there is often a time lag before they become harmful. He believes that all non-native plants are potentially harmful to ecosystems.
  • Critics say that some non-native species are beneficial.
    • Simberloff says that critics only report the benefits, while ignoring the negative impacts of non-native species.  (Actually, most critics are proposing a cost/benefit analysis that acknowledges both positive and negative impacts.)
  • Critics say that invasion biology is xenophobic.
    • Simberloff says that if you’re looking for xenophobia, you often see it. He calls this the “law of instrument” or if your instrument is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  (Frankly, I didn’t understand the point he was trying to make, but I have tried to describe it accurately based on what he said.)
  • Critics say that trying to eradicate non-native species is futile.
    • Simberloff says this argument ignores the progress that has been made in the technology of eradication methods. He used the “early detection and rapid response” strategy as an example of progress in eradicating non-native plants.  That strategy focuses on small populations of non-native plants, basically acknowledging the futility of trying to eradicate large areas of well-established non-native plants.
    • Much of Simberloff’s presentation was devoted to describing many developments in genetic engineering, such as CRISPR to drive species to extinction and gene silencing. All of the examples of such developments were aimed at killing insects (such as mosquitoes) and animals (such as rats and mice), with one exception. He was particularly enthusiastic about island eradications of which there are hundreds, and hundreds more on the drawing boards.  Only one gene-editing project on plants is trying to develop a genetic method to eradicate phragmites.

Things finally became interesting, when Simberloff took questions:  “Dan, you mention the “futility” argument, but what about the notion that the cost in environmental damage (e.g, pesticide use and nontarget impacts) is too high for some well-established invaders?”  Simberloff’s answer to this question was surprising and encouraging to critics of pesticide use to kill non-native species:

“Absolutely, it’s a huge problem, not only on non-target species, but also the fact that evolution of resistance leads to greater use of pesticides before they are useful and leads to greater impact on non-target species.  I didn’t talk about this, but yes, of course the cost both economically and ecologically might be too great even if management eradication is feasible.  But that’s not what denialism is about.  Denialism willfully denies that there are impacts or they confound arguments about values as if it is an argument about science.”

The Executive Director of Cal-IPC recognized the dangers of Simberloff’s answer because pesticides are the primary tool used by the “restoration” industry and much of the conference was devoted to telling over 650 employees of the “restoration” industry about new developments in pesticide use.  Those new developments are not good news to those who are concerned about the dangers of pesticides.  For example, a new “drizzle” technique increases the concentration of the active ingredient and lowers the volume of the application, increasing toxicity of the application.  Another alarming presentation described the use of drones to spray herbicides on hundreds of acres of phragmites in the Suisun Marsh.

The absence of good alternatives to pesticide use in eradication projects is another source of pressure on the “restoration” industry and therefore on Cal-IPC:

  • Jon Keeley’s presentation about the interaction of fire, fire prevention, and plant invasions included the observation that using prescribed burns to eradicate non-native plants results in more non-native plants, not more native plants.
  • A land manager in Southern California acknowledged that pressures to reduce pesticide use threaten the future of his project: “Natural herbicides result in more time intensive and costly weed control, with less confidence of success. Where herbicide application is completely restricted, other weed control methods like hand weeding or mowing can be implemented successfully, but they often fall short of herbicide in effectiveness. This resulting reduction in effective weed control must be taken into account in future plans for habitat restoration and management, and our existing programs will have to reevaluate the proposed efforts, cost of those efforts, and expectations for success, both short and long term.” (Scott McMillan, abstract)
  • Finally, with the exception of a few timid questions from participants, no mention was made about the threat of climate change on the future of native ecosystems. Simberloff likened critics of invasion biology to “climate change deniers.”  In fact, it’s fair to say that those who demand that we replicate native ranges existing 250-500 years ago are more accurately called climate change deniers.

The Executive Director of Cal-IPC tried to save the day by portraying those who oppose pesticides as extremists, based on what he considers “unscientific” studies.  But Simberloff wouldn’t take the bait.  He wasn’t willing to dismiss the concerns about pesticides.  Instead, Simberloff passed the buck:

“I’ll beg off on answering that question on grounds that I’m not a social scientist or psychologist.  This is not my area of expertise.  There is some reason for the extremists because Monsanto has sometimes lied to us and there have been problems associated with pesticides.  I leave this question to policy scientists.”

Simberloff reveals the flaw in the “restoration” industry

As a critic of invasion biology and the use of pesticides, I have always been frustrated that critics of invasion biology do not use the damage done by eradications as a reason for their criticism.  With the exception of Tao Orion’s Beyond the War on Invasive Species, none of the books written by critics have used this argument.  It is a missed opportunity and Simberloff’s presentation to Cal-IPC is an indication that it is the strongest argument against eradication projects that are inspired by invasion biology.

Invasion biology is a theoretical construct.  It does no harm to ecosystems until it justifies the use of harmful methods to eradicate non-native species.  I humbly ask that critics of invasion biology wake up to this opportunity.  Pesticides are a winning argument against “restoration” projects that eradicate non-native plants.  Any cost/benefit analysis of new eradication projects should include the ecological and economic costs of pesticides in the equation.

Beyond Pesticides points the way forward

I try not to leave the field without offering a compromise because opposition without solutions is not constructive.  I offer this sage advice from Beyond Pesticides about case-by-case evaluations of weed invasions that will reduce damage to ecosystems.  Beyond Pesticides responded to this question:  “I’m working on a pesticide policy in my community and am interested in how you might suggest we deal with “invasive” species. Can you point us in the right direction? Martin, Boston, MA.”  This is BP’s thoughtful answer:

“It’s Beyond Pesticides position that invasives, or opportunistic species, should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, with established priorities and a plan. With any unwanted species, there needs to be an understanding of the ecological context. We need to be asking the right questions: What role is the plant currently playing in a landscape—what niche is it currently filling? If we remove this plant, what will fill that niche? Will we be replanting the right native species to fill that niche? What are the detrimental impacts of letting it spread? Is there a way we can isolate it to stop its spread? Can we ever remove this plant altogether, or will we be working at control indefinitely? These are important questions that we need to be asking before we even consider management methods. Regarding policy, requiring an individualized invasive species management plan seems to be the right answer, though unfortunately many pesticide reform policies sidestep the issue and simply exempt invasives to avoid opposition. Just like all organic approaches, we’ll want to place a focus on prevention and working with ecological systems, rather than against them, making even least-toxic pesticide use a last resort. There is a strong potential to undermine the stability of an ecosystem if we simply go in and immediately break out the strongest tools in the toolbox without a plant replacement strategy. On a turf system with common weeds a simple answer is grass plants. But, in forested areas already subject to intrusion (from construction/logging, etc.), rights-of-way, and urban areas, the focus is on alternative vegetation or ground cover. Sometimes, little should be done except simple mechanical cutting to keep these species in balance. This is an interesting and, at times, contentious issue that environmentalists grapple with, so there is certainly room for fresh ideas on how to approach opportunistic species without the use of toxic pesticides. For more information, we encourage you to watch the talk given at Beyond Pesticides 37th National Pesticide Forum in New York City by Peter Del Tredici, PhD, senior research scientist at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum (www.bp-dc.org/ invasives).”

 

Beyond Pesticides: The voice of reason about pesticides

Beyond Pesticides logo

I attended my first Beyond Pesticides forum in 2014 in Portland, Oregon.  I have been a member of and donor to Beyond Pesticides ever since.  And I have purchased only organic food since attending that forum, because of a field trip to a community of farm workers that convinced me that growing our food without using pesticides benefits both consumers and producers of America’s food.  

In a recent letter to the National Invasive Species Council, Beyond Pesticides describes their organization and mission:

Founded in 1981 as a national, grassroots, membership organization that represents community-based organizations and a range of people seeking to bridge the interests of consumers, farmers and farmworkers, Beyond Pesticides advances improved protections from pesticides and alternative pest management strategies that reduce or eliminate a reliance on pesticides.” (The letter is available HERE: Beyond Pesticides – ISAC Comment )

 I receive emails from Beyond Pesticides at least once a week, alerting me to opportunities to influence the laws and policies that regulate pesticide use in America.  As you might expect, the frequency of those alerts has accelerated a great deal in the past year, as the federal government is actively engaged in the process of dismantling many federal regulations, including those that regulate pesticides.

 The National Invasive Species Council recently invited the public to submit public comments in answer to a few specific questions, in preparation for the next meeting of the Invasive Species Advisory Council.  Today I am publishing an excerpt of the letter of Beyond Pesticides in answer to those questions (some emphasis added).  I am doing so because I consider this letter a wise and informed critique of the entire concept of “invasive species” and the pesticides used to eradicate them.

 I am also alerting the readers of Million Trees to the opportunity to attend the annual forum of Beyond Pesticides in Irvine, California, April 13-14, 2018.  Information about that meeting is available below.

 Million Trees


“The National Invasive Species Council (NISC) posed four questions for public input to the forthcoming meeting of the Invasive Species Advisory Council (ISAC). We find it most helpful to begin with the fourth: “How can NISC foster the development and application of innovative tools and technologies to enable the prevention, eradication, and control of invasive species in a more timely and effective manner?”

In order to address this question, NISC and ISAC need to first address the question, “What is an ‘invasive species’?”

‘Invasive species’ have frequently provided a reason for dispersing toxic chemicals in the environment, often with a sense of urgency and an assumed indisputable benefit. This unsupported (and sometimes unstated) assertion of benefit is a claim to virtue that allows environmental harm instead of preventing it.

In the context of other federal, state, and local laws, the regulatory definition of ‘invasive species’ gives broad authority to agencies to use all means at their disposal to rid the jurisdiction of non-native organisms causing economic harm, as well as harm to health and the environment. Many local ordinances that ban or restrict pesticide use make an exception for ‘invasive species,’ presumably under the mistaken assumption that in doing so they are protecting the environment. Instead, they are allowing environmental harm through the spread of toxic substances.

The use of the term ‘invasive species’ as a claim to virtue that is used to promote any and every attempt to exterminate any unwanted organisms is very disturbing. It is important to understand the problems that lead to the use of toxic chemicals, beginning with the cause. In the case of situations involving so-called ‘invasive species,’ we find that few, if any, involve species that are truly ecologically invasive—that is, capable of invading and persisting in intact ecosystems. Instead, such situations usually involve species that can take advantage of disturbed habitats (‘weeds’ or ‘weedy species’). As such, the emphasis should be placed on healing the disturbance (to which end, so-called ‘invasives’ may sometimes be helpful), rather than killing the opportunist colonizer.

We do not take the position that such opportunist colonizers should never be removed or managed. We do believe that the decision concerning whether such action should be taken should be based on the situation at hand and not on a claim to virtue that makes extermination of non-natives a righteous cause.

Redefining ‘invasive species’ to be limited to those species that can invade and damage intact ecological communities will directly ‘foster the development and application of innovative tools and technologies to enable the prevention, eradication, and control of invasive species in a more timely and effective manner’ (NISC) because resources will be directed only at those species that truly present an ecological threat. It will prevent those resources from being squandered in ways that are ecologically destructive.

The sharper focus that this redefinition will bring to the NISC and ASIC will enable them to explore approaches such as those that Beyond Pesticides has used in working with National Parks, local governments, and tribes to manage ecological problems in a way that is truly protective of biodiversity.”

Terry Shistar, Ph.D.
Board of Directors
Beyond Pesticides


Beyond Pesticides will soon hold its annual forum in Irvine, California, April 13-14, 2018.  As usual, the forum will include highly qualified speakers who are knowledgeable about so-called “invasive species,” and the evolutionary principles that raise questions about the necessity and futility of trying to eradicate them.   Two of the speakers are important to our local effort to stop the use of pesticides to eradicate non-native plant species:  Dr. Scott Carroll and Professor Tyrone Hayes.

Dr. Scott Carroll is an evolutionary biologist affiliated with UC Davis.  He has published several influential studies about the speed of adaptation and evolution that enables introduced plants to join native ecosystems without long-term negative consequences of their introduction.  He has coined the concept of “Conciliation Biology,” which advocates that we turn from efforts to eradicate non-native species in favor of a new approach which manages the co-existence of native and non-native species. 

Professor Tyrone Hayes (UC Berkeley) is best known for his criticism of the herbicide, atrazine, which is harmful to the frogs that he studies.  Unfortunately, Professor Hayes’ opposition to atrazine does not extend to the pesticides being used in the San Francisco Bay Area to eradicate non-native trees and prevent them from resprouting.  Professor Hayes accepts the premise that eucalyptus trees are detrimental to native plants, which justifies the use of herbicides to destroy them, in his opinion.  The herbicide that is used for that purpose (Garlon with active ingredient triclopyr) is just as toxic as atrazine.  Both are organochlorine products that bioaccumulate, persist in the environment for decades, and are endocrine disruptors. 

The Beyond Pesticides forum is likely to generate some lively discussion of the issues that are relevant in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Details about the conference are available HERE.  Beyond Pesticides makes every effort to make these forums affordable for activists.  I have attended two of these conferences.  They were excellent opportunities to learn more about pesticides, to meet other activists, and to get ideas about how to advocate more effectively for more responsible pesticide use in our community.

I am very grateful to Beyond Pesticides for their leadership in the effort to reduce pesticide use in the United States.  They are a reliable source of information about pesticides and their activism is an inspiration to those who are engaged in this effort on a local level.

Million Trees