“Feds Target Egrets and Owls for Eradication”

We are publishing a guest article by Sydney Ross Singer, Director, Good Shepherd Foundation.  Dr. Singer has been a tireless defender of non-native species in Hawaii, where he lives.  Nativism in Hawaii is even more destructive than similar projects in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Barn Owl.  Creative Commons 2.0 Generic.
Barn Owl. Creative Commons 2.0 Generic.

Tens of thousands of innocent Owls and Egrets will be executed in Hawaii by the US Fish and Wildlife Service unless President Obama issues a pardon.

Cattle egrets and barn owls are an important part of Hawaii’s environment, consuming large amounts of rodent and insect pests as they were meant to do when first introduced by the government to these islands back in the 1950′s. They are protected by international migratory bird treaties, and are admired and prized by people wherever they are found.

Unfortunately, they are now being targeted for destruction statewide by the same invasive species eradicators who are killing our other introduced wildlife.

Egret.  Creative Commons Share Alike.
Egret. Creative Commons Share Alike.

Currently, whenever there is a conflict between egrets or owls and endangered species or airports, there have been permits required for their control in the local area where they are a problem. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed lifting this permit requirement to allow the egrets and barn owls to be killed anywhere they are found, even if they are not causing any problems. It is killing the innocent today to prevent a potential problem in the future.

This is a reminder of ethnic cleansing and genocide. It is not what our great nation is about.

This slaughter of innocent egrets and owls is a crime against nature and against the people who live with and admire these magnificent birds. Making matters even worse, one of the methods that will be used to kill the birds is to attract them to slaughter areas by broadcasting their bird calls. Owls will be attracted from miles away to be shot. Egret colonies will be massacred for no reason other than their existence in Hawaii.

This “final solution” for the egrets and owls, not only controlling them where they are a problem but everywhere they live throughout the Hawaiian Islands, can only be stopped by President Obama issuing a stay on their execution. It is the Federal Government’s Fish and Wildlife Service that wants to allow unlimited open season on these birds. It is up to the President of our country to intervene on the behalf of these innocent, magnificent creatures.

Please help spread the word. Sign our Change.org petition. And visit our website http://www.DontKilltheBirds.org. Together we can help save these wonderful birds from needless slaughter.


Photos and bold emphasis added.

It takes a lot of noise to stop the spraying of pesticides

Hawaiians have been subjected to more than their fair share of the toxic methods used to eradicate non-native species because the justification for such projects is strongest on islands.  Islands contain the most endemic species, unique to those islands, because they evolved in geographical isolation.  More extinction has occurred on islands than on the mainland of the United States because species that evolved in isolation are more vulnerable to new competition than species that have evolved with more competition.  Theoretically, if you can eradicate a non-native species, it is more possible to prevent reintroduction on an isolated island.

We have reported earlier on Million Trees, a few of the many projects on the Hawaiian Islands to eradicate non-native species:

  • The coqui frog is from Puerto Rico.  There are no native frogs in Hawaii,
    Coqui frog
    Coqui frog

    so the coqui is not competing with a native, which is the usual justification for eradicating a species.  In this case, the promoters of this project claim that the frog is eating all of the insects, depriving other animals of food.   A concentrated caffeine solution has been the poison of choice for the coqui.

  • The strawberry guava is a fruit tree that has been a valuable source of food for both animals and humans.  It was brought to Hawaii by Polynesian ancestors in the distant past.  It is being eradicated with an imported non-native insect.
  • The importation of non-native insects for the purpose of killing a non-native plant has often had unintended consequences.  Although extensive research is done, once introduced, the insect often chooses a host that was not the target species.  Biological control introductions are considered the cause of 15 moth extinctions in Hawaii.

We have also reported that there is considerable push back from Hawaiians who consider some of these species valuable and in any case, don’t appreciate being poisoned.   That push back is the point of this post.

The new threat to the health and safety of Hawaiians

Pineapple and sugar cane plantations were the mainstay of Hawaiian agriculture.  They have moved operations to places where it’s cheaper to do business.  They have been replaced with thousands of acres of corn and soy beans which have been genetically modified to produce plants resistant to herbicides.  The plantations produce seeds, which carry the genetic modification for pesticide resistance, to be sold to farmers all over the world.

These small farms are being replaced by huge fields of corn and soya.  Kauia, Hawaii
These small farms are being replaced by huge fields of corn and soya. Kauia, Hawaii

Hawaii is an attractive place to grow these valuable seeds because the weather allows for three crops to be grown each year.  That not only speeds up production, but also reduces the time needed for testing and development of new hybrids.  Naturally, pesticides are used on those crops.  After all, the crop is immune to the pesticides.

The scale of these operations, their year-around activity, and the pesticides sprayed on the crops have become intolerable to the neighbors of these operations who are bothered by both dust and pesticides.  They have been demanding that the operations be scaled-back or at least controlled.  Naturally, there are also people who are making their living from this profitable enterprise, and these people fight back.

A legislative committee on Kauai considered an ordinance in early October that would have restricted the operations of these companies.  Between 1,500 and 4,000 supporters of the bill demonstrated at that hearing.  Opponents of the bill were said to be more numerous.  The bill was amended and passed by the committee and considered for approval by the legislative body last week.  The hearing started at 9 am and lasted until 3:30 am the following day.  The ordinance was passed as amended:

“The ordinance requires the seed companies to disclose which pesticides they use and establishes no-spray zones around schools, medical facilities, homes, public roads and waterways.  The original bill would also have limited the planting of genetically modified crops, but those provisions were removed during deliberations.”  (1)

These restrictions seem rather minimal, yet it took thousands of people attending several days of hearings to accomplish this small improvement.  That’s the commitment that is required for the public to be heard over the voices of corporate and economic interests.

In the San Francisco Bay Area we marvel that we are unable to convince our public policy makers that they should stop poisoning our public parks.  Supporters of these local projects are not large, powerful corporations, so shouldn’t it be easier to make ourselves heard?  Apparently we are just not making enough noise.  


(1)    Andrew Pollack, “Limits Approved for Genetically Modified Crops in Kauai, Hawaii,” New York Times, October 16, 2013

The unintended consequences of micromanaging nature

We must tell our readers about the collateral damage of misguided attempts to manage nature more often than we would like.  We prefer positive stories, but in the hope of a better future we must also inform the public of the unintended consequences of the many projects that are killing one species of plant or animal based on the mistaken assumption that another plant or animal will benefit. 

Trumpeter swan by James Audubon
Trumpeter swan by James Audubon

In this case, a project sponsored by the Nature Conservancy decimated the population of rare Arctic grayling fish in Centennial Valley, Montana, by damming the streams to create ponds for the benefit of the equally rare trumpeter swan.  The grayling had spawned in those streams and the population plummeted when the streams were dammed. 

The Nature Conservancy scientist who was interviewed by National Public Radio for this story said, “There are lots of examples where we try something that sounds like a good idea [and it] turns out not to be that good of an idea.  Then [we] remedy it and—hopefully—never try it again.”    

Unfortunately, they ARE trying it again.  Now the scientists are trying to compensate for the damage to the grayling population by killing cutthroat trout that is considered a predator to the grayling.  The cutthroat is not native, so that also makes it a candidate for eradication.  It’s as though we are on a killing treadmill.  One mistake seems to lead to another. 

Stop and think before you shoot!

Cockatoo.  Creative Commons
Cockatoo. Creative Commons

A bird lover in Hawaii takes a more thoughtful approach to the suggestion that introduced cockatoos and African parrots should be shot, based on the assumption that they are competing with the dwindling population of native birds.  He points out that the native birds nest in the ground, while the cockatoos and parrots nest in cavities in the trees.  Most of the native birds are nectar eaters, while the cockatoos and parrots eat seeds and nuts.  So, he wonders if the introduced birds are really a threat to the native birds.

The exotic birds are either escaped pets or the descendents of them.  The author of the article urges pet owners to take care of their pets and make a permanent commitment to their care.  Releasing them into the forest is making them a target for people who think killing them would benefit other birds. 

The author is not opposed to killing non-native animals when absolutely necessary, but he is at least willing to carefully consider if it is necessary, in his opinion.   He is comfortable with the killing of rats, pigs, and feral cats, for example.

Million Trees takes this question a step further.  We don’t think humans should micromanage nature.  We don’t have enough information to presume to know better than nature what is best.  We also have our own anthropomorphic criteria for which species is more important than another.  Our judgment is self-serving and is not a substitute for the even-hand of nature.   Nature follows the simple rule of “survival of the fittest.”  Nature is as likely to save the lowly spider as it is to save the beautiful trumpeter swan.

A parable to illustrate the point

This parable, retold in Fanaticism of the Apocalypse (1) illustrates the futility of man’s attempt to control nature:

“Noah, as he is loading the animals onto the Ark, is alarmed by the large number of candidates.  Mammals, birds, marsupials, penguins, primates, and lizards have already gone on board.  The ass, the ox, the giraffe, the elk, the stag, the lion, and the cat urge the patriarch to raise the gangplank and close the hatches.  The boat is chock-full, the cedar hull is about to crack open, the Deluge is threatening.  Outside, a crowd of harmful or misshapen pests—cockroaches, toads, slugs, spiders—asks to be taken on.  The toad speaks on behalf of his unsightly comrades:  he pleads their cause with eloquence, pointing out to the Patriarch that they perform a useful function in nature.  In God’s design, nothing is ugly or repugnant:  everything is ingenious, even invertebrates, mollusks are necessary.  No one has the right to destroy these creatures of the Lord.  But Noah turns on his heel and decides to raise the anchor.  Then a cloud of insects and pests assails him:  fleas climb on his legs, crabs crawl in his pubic hair, lice swarm on his head, leeches, stinkbugs, and mosquitoes stick to his skin without him noticing them.  Snakes slip into his flowing hair, spiders take up residence in his beard.  That is how the whole bestiary was spared.”

We fiddle with nature at our own peril. 


(1)    Pascal Bruckner, The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, Polity, May 2013

Ecosystem processes are comparable in native and non-native forests in Hawaii

Native Hawaiian forest. Creative Commons Attribution

Joseph Mascaro is one of the scientists Emma Marris interviewed for her ground-breaking book, Rambunctious Garden.  (1) Marris visited Mascaro on the Big Island of Hawaii, where he was studying the forests, comparing native with “novel” forests, the name given to ecosystems composed of both native and introduced species of plants. 

According to Marris, Mascaro considers Ariel Lugo his mentor.  Lugo is a US Forest Service scientist living and working in Puerto Rico.  He is one of the first scientists to observe and report that non-native forests in Puerto Rico are performing important ecological functions and benefiting native forests by restoring depleted agricultural soils and providing shelter to native seedlings.

Lugo, like many native plant advocates, received his education in ecology at a time when there was deep suspicion of introduced species.  The conventional wisdom was that introduced species were competitors of preferred native species, that they were inferior members of an ecosystem and that they would eventually dominate and replace their native predecessors. 

When Lugo’s team reported that the understory in the non-native forest was so dense that it made the forest impenetrable, he was incredulous.  Slowly, the reality of the non-native forest penetrated the prejudices of his training.  He submitted his findings for publication repeatedly.  After a lengthy debate, his study was finally published in 1992.  He still considers himself an outlier amongst his colleagues in the Forest Service.

Joseph Mascaro is now a Postdoctoral Associate at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California.  His study of the novel forests of Hawaiian lowland rain forests has recently been published:  “Novel forests maintain ecosystem processes after the decline of native tree species.” (2)  We will do our layman’s best to report his main findings.

Judging the forest by the functions it performs

The scientific community seems to agree that introduced plant species have resulted in a net increase in species on the Hawaiian Islands:  “Seventy-one vascular plant species are known to have become extinct in Hawaii over the past ~1700 years, while at least 1,090 introduced plant species have become naturalized during this period:  an approximate doubling of its pre-human contact flora.”  (2)

Mascaro’s study asks and answers the question, what are the functional implications of increased diversity due to invasion?  He proposes and tests three hypotheses:

  • Species richness and diversity are greater in novel forests than native forests in lowland Hawaii.
  • Basic measures of ecological functions of novel forests meet or exceed measures in native forests.  He used these basic measures:
    • Aboveground and belowground production of biomass, called productivity
    • Aboveground and belowground storage of carbon
    • Cycling (or turnover) of nitrogen and phosphorous between soil, trees, and leaf litter.
    • Because forest establishment in Hawaii begins on barren lava flows on which there is no available nitrogen and it takes several centuries to accumulate the nitrogen needed by native trees, the disparity between the functioning of novel and native forests are greatest on younger lava flows where novel forests are composed of nitrogen-fixing tree species. 

He reports his findings:  “At local scales, we found that novel forests had significantly higher tree species richness and higher diversity of dominant tree species.  We further found that aboveground biomass, productivity, nutrient turnover (as measured by soil-available and litter-cycled nitrogen and phosphorus) and belowground carbon storage either did not differ significantly or were significantly greater in novel relative to native forests.”  (2)  Our interpretation of this study is that the novel forests of the lowland rain forests of Hawaii maintain basic functioning where native forests are now absent and that the novel forest facilitates the revegetation of barren lava flows by creating fertile soil. 

Barren Hawaiian lava flow. Creative Commons Attribution

He also speculated that “Because large portions of the Earth’s surface are undergoing similar transitions from native to novel ecosystems, our results are likely to be broadly applicable.” (2) It is this conclusion that his findings can be generalized to other locations that brought Joseph Mascaro’s study to our attention. 

Mascaro recently wrote to the Webmaster of the Save Mount Sutro Forest website and sent his study.  He lives in San Francisco and drives over Mt. Sutro daily, on his way to work.  Mascaro told the Save Sutro Webmaster, “I wanted to let you know that your website and effort are much appreciated.  As a practicing ecologist, I find it bewildering that efforts to restore native plant communities (some of which I find very important) would be directed at a diverse, old-growth, functioning ecosystem smack in the middle of one of the largest cities in the country….Cases like Sutro are often emotional and controversial, and while I don’t disparage anyone’s view, I tend to think that great pause must be taken before destroying something that is centuries old.  I hope you will continue your effort.” (quoted with permission)

Mount Sutro Forest. Courtesy Save Mount Sutro Forest

We are grateful to Joseph Mascaro for his research on the novel forests of Hawaii and for expressing his opinion of the value of the forest on Mt. Sutro.  We are also grateful to the Webmaster of Save Sutro Forest for her insightful and articulate defense of the Sutro Forest. 

The evolution of ecology

We began this post with the observation  that scientists have found it difficult to report their findings about novel ecosystems that are not consistent with their educational training.  When we expect to see something, it is often difficult for us to see something that contradicts those expectations.  We commend scientists such as Ariel Lugo for reporting his observations, although they weren’t consistent with his training. 

We are also pleased to report that we have observed, first-hand, a change in the training of university students in ecology.  We attended two sessions of an undergraduate seminar in a local, major university.  That seminar is reading and evaluating Rambunctious GardenThe students were entirely receptive to the revision of traditionally negative judgments of introduced species.  That revision is the main theme of Rambunctious Garden.  These students are the next generation of ecologists.  They are the beginning of a new conventional wisdom about the role of introduced species in our ecosystems. 


(1)    Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden, Bloomsbury, 2011

(2)    Joseph Mascaro, R. Flint Hughes, Stefan A. Schnitzer, “Novel forests maintain ecosystem processes after the decline of native tree species,” Ecological Monographs, 82(2), 2012, pp. 221-228 by Ecological Society of America

The futility of eradicating non-native species

We tend to focus on the native plant “restorations” in our neighborhood, but we should not lose track of the fact that similar efforts are taking place all over the world.  The native plant movement is international and if it loses momentum, we should expect to see loss of support for its destructive projects elsewhere.  So, today we will tell our readers about several recent developments that suggest that scientists all over the world are having second thoughts about invasion biology, which is the scientific underpinning of the native plant movement. 

Second Thoughts:  The Hawaiian Case

We have reported to our readers about the many “restoration” projects in Hawaii.  There is some logic to focusing such efforts on islands, because they are the places most vulnerable to the loss of native species attributed to introduced species and theoretically they are also the places where re-invasion should be easiest to control.

Scientists have recently published the results of a ten-year effort to return an “invaded” forest to its native origins.  They spent about 5 years clearing the forest of all non-natives.  They planted the scorched earth with natives and then they walked away from it to observe the long-term sustainability of their effort.  Five years later they report that the composition of the forest—with respect to its nativity—has essentially returned to its original state.

They tested several hypotheses while observing the changes in the forest during the second half of the project.  Conventional wisdom had been that the more densely natives occupied the ground, the less vulnerable it would be to re-invasion.  Much to their surprise, this was not the outcome of their experiment.  The more densely natives occupied the ground, the greater the population of non-natives in the final analysis.  They conclude that the same conditions which encouraged the growth of native plants were equally beneficial to the growth of non-native plants.

This study was conducted by the US Forest Service.  We hope they learned something from this experience.  Specifically, we hope that the US Forest Service now understands that native plant “restorations” are not a one-shot deal.  They are a permanent commitment to garden that restoration with the same amount of effort.  That’s why scientists—such as Professors Arthur Shapiro and Peter Del Tredici—tell us that large scale projects are not sustainable in the long term.  A small scale native plant garden as an historical illustration is a worthwhile effort.  Gardening our vast public lands is like “plowing the sea,” as Professor Shapiro told us recently.

Second Thoughts:  The New Zealand Case

New Zealand has made herculean efforts to save its native species from “invasions” by non-native species:  “New Zealand is a very weedy country.  Indigenous plant species are matched in number by naturalized exotic species and about 20 new invaders are discovered each year.  Thus, a weed eradication program has been under way for the past 10 years, but eradicating an unwanted plant species is much more difficult than it might seem.” (1)

Eradicating yellow tree lupin, New Zealand Dept of Conservation

How successful have these efforts been?  According to a recent study, they have had very little success:  “The current issue of the journal Invasive Plant Science and Management assesses the progress of 111 weed eradication programs carried out by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation.  Only four of these programs have met with success, while 21 have been discontinued and the rest remain an ongoing challenge.”

The report concludes, “After a decade, New Zealand’s weed eradication strategy has yet to yield significant results.”  Anyone who has been watching similar efforts all over the San Francisco Bay Area will not be the least bit surprised by this conclusion.  With the exception of small gardens which are irrigated and intensively gardened, these projects are weedy messes, usually behind fences.

Second Thoughts:  The Australian Case

Scotia Sanctuary, Australia

Emma Marris interviewed the manager of one of many “restoration” projects in Australia for her book, Rambunctious Garden.  He told her about the 18 month process of killing all non-native animals in a 15-square mile sanctuary enclosed by a prison-like fence, “sturdy, tall, and electrified.”  (This was half of the Scotia Sanctuary)

“He was able to shoot out the goats in a matter of days.  Rabbits were harder…he put out carrot bait…the rabbits…would learn to trust the new food source…[then] the carrots would be poisoned…[He] repeated this routine three times, running through 12,500 pounds of carrots…For each fox, he learned its habits and was eventually able to find perfect places to trap or poison them.  He also trapped cats…The key to making it work, he says, was ‘perseverance, perseverance, perseverance.’” (2)

It was necessary to kill all the non-native animals before taking on the more difficult task of returning the land to native plants because of the interaction between the plants and animals.  The non-native animals are considered a continuing and permanent threat to the sanctuary.  The expectation is that this 250 acre restoration will require human intervention indefinitely into the future.

Australia is a huge place, so the prospect of this labor-intensive process being replicated on a nationwide basis is absurd.  Therefore, it seems inevitable that Australian scientists would begin to question the efficacy of such efforts. 

Just two months ago, an Australian scientist, Angela Moles, gave a TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) presentation suggesting that it is time to grant Australian citizenship to introduced species.  Click here to see the video.

Her reasoning is based on the relatively new understanding of the speed with which evolution occurs.  Her laboratory used the collection of a university herbarium to measure the changes in the plants that were introduced to Australia.  The herbarium had samples of the same species of plants collected over a 60 year period from the same location.  They found that the plants had changed in significant ways.  In a sense, they were becoming Australian plants in response to the biotic (other plants and animals) and abiotic (climate, soil, etc) conditions of their new home.  She predicted that if they weren’t yet genetically distinct from their ancestors, they soon would be.   In other words, they are becoming distinct, new species…..Australian species.

She showed a slide of her son who is a 2nd generation Australian.  He is considered an Australian by law and custom.  Then she showed a slide of clover which has changed significantly since its introduction.  After 130 generations, it is still not considered Australian.  After showing a few of the massive eradication projects and describing the scale and futility of those efforts, she suggested that it is long past time to accept the clover and other introduced species as Australian.

And, of course, we agree.  Let us abandon the destructive and futile war on non-native species.  The sooner we do, the less damage will be done to the environment and to the animals that live in it, including us.  


(1)    “Eradicating Weed Species in New Zealand Poses a Larger Challenge Than Expected,” Science Daily, July 21, 2012

(2)    Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden, Bloomsbury, 2011

Conservation Refugees: The misanthropy of ecological “restorations”

Hawaiians protest confiscation of public lands

We recently told our readers about the controversial “restoration” projects in Hawaii.  Now our colleagues in Hawaii have sent us photographs of a public protest in Hawaii and The Hawaii Reporter tells us why they are protesting.  Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) is fencing the public out of another 17 square miles of prime forest on the Big Island.  All the non-native animals—sheep, goats, pigs—will be exterminated and all their non-native food—strawberry guava, passion fruit, etc—will be eradicated in that fenced enclosure.   The people who hunted the animals and gathered fruit in the forest are protesting the loss of this source of food. 

In addition to the loss of food, the protestors also object to the loss of an activity that is central to the Hawaiian culture of foraging and hunting for food.   DLNR’s response to that particular complaint is that the historical record indicates that Hawaiians didn’t hunt prior to the arrival of Europeans because they raised animals as their own. 

In other words, not only does DLNR wish to stop the biological clock, they also wish to freeze-frame the Hawaiian culture to a pre-European standard.  They don’t seem to have considered that the Europeans essentially confiscated the land of the Hawaiians when they arrived, which deprived the Hawaiians of the land needed to raise animals.  That’s too bad.  The Hawaiians are not allowed to hunt now because they didn’t hunt 250 years ago.   As absurd as creating botanical museums seems to us, the suggestion that culture must also be prevented from evolving strikes us as utterly ridiculous.

Hawaiians protest loss of access to public lands

Conservation Refugees

Hawaii’s cost of living has always been one of the highest in the country because virtually all of its food must be imported.   And now Hawaiians are being deprived of an important source of food by the confiscation of public lands.  Will these Hawaiians join the ranks of the millions of conservation refugees all over the world who have been displaced in the name of conservation?

We were introduced to conservation refugees by Mark Dowie in 2004.  He told us that the belief that wilderness is not compatible with human community originated with John Muir, who demanded that Native Americans living in Yosemite be removed from the valley.  Native Americans were also removed from Yellowstone when the National Park was created.  These Native Americans were the first conservation refugees, but not the last.

Dowie told us that the worldwide official protected areas—parks, reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, biodiversity corridors—had expanded from 1,000 in 1962 to 108,000 in 2004.  The total number of indigenous people displaced by the creation of these protected areas is not known because most countries make no attempt to quantify the impact.  In Chad an estimated 600,000 indigenous people became conservation refugees when the amount of protected areas increased from 0.1 to 9.1 percent of total national land in the 1990s.  India admits to creating 1.6 million conservation refugees as a result of creating new protected areas and the Indian government estimates that 2 or 3 million more will be displaced in this decade.

Dowie visited some of the communities that have been displaced by the confiscation of their ancestral land.  The loss of their land is also the loss of their way of life.  Hunters/gatherers are deprived of their source of food.  Likewise, farmers lose their croplands.  They wander into shanty towns where they lack the skills to survive in the modern world.  They create shabby squatter camps on the perimeter of their homeland where they live without sanitation or water.  The fabric of their communities is shattered.

Emma Marris* observes the irony of these evictions of traditional cultures which have tended these remnants of the wilderness for generations.  These places were targets for conservation because they had been preserved by traditional cultures that had learned to co-exist with nature.  This is how they are rewarded for their stewardship of the land.

What is accomplished?

What is gained when Hawaiians are thrown out of their public lands, depriving them of a source of food?  Are these projects successful?  Are the plants and animals that existed in Hawaii several hundred years ago returning to the fenced reserves that have been created for them?

Emma Marris visited one of these projects in Hawaii.  A small test plot was cleared of all non-native plants, requiring the removal of about half of all the vegetation.  That process took about a week per thousand square feet and then “epic bouts of weeding thereafter.”

 The theory was that the removal of all the non-natives would enable the natives to thrive without the competition for sunlight and water.  Five years later, there is little evidence that native plants have benefited from the eradication of all non-native plants:

“Disappointingly, the mature native trees had grown very little.  As [the project directors] put it, ‘The native trees may either be responding to the treatments very slowly and still undetectably, or they may be unable to respond at all.’”

The directors of this project also told Marris, “I think that people that are interested in protecting Hawaii’s flora and fauna have resigned themselves to it being in postage-stamp sized reserves.”   Apparently Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources hasn’t gotten this message.  They are now creating another 17 square mile reserve with the intention of eradicating everything non-native in it.  Nothing is likely to be accomplished by all that death and destruction and some Hawaiians will also go hungry.

The slippery slope of nativism

Perhaps we should be grateful that the “restoration” projects in the San Francisco Bay Area aren’t depriving us of our homes and our livelihoods.  We are just being fenced out of our public parks.  We are just losing our trees.  Our public parks are just being poisoned with pesticides.

But we watch these projects all over the world and we listen to the demands of local native plant advocates and we wonder where this is headed.  In San Francisco, for example, native plant advocates are demanding that all of the public lands in the city be managed as “natural areas.”  In addition to destroying the trees in our parks, would we lose the trees on all our public properties?  We also know that native plant advocates want plant nurseries to quit selling to the public the approximately 200 plants that they have categorized as “invasive.”  Will we lose the right to plant what we want in our own backyards?  Given what we see happening around the world, it doesn’t seem farfetched. 

* Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011

Nativism: The Hawaiian case

The case for native plant and animal restorations is strongest on islands.  They contain the most endemic species, unique to those places.  More extinction has occurred on islands than on the mainland of the United States because species that evolved in isolation are more vulnerable to new competition than species that have evolved with more competition.  Theoretically, if man were able to eradicate non-native species of plants and animals, it would be easier to prevent re-invasions on an island.  Consequently the Hawaiian Islands are a hot-bed of nativism.

The efforts to eradicate many species of plants and animals in the Hawaiian Islands are just as controversial there as they are here in the Bay Area.   Here is a sampling of the legal, environmental, and ethical questions raised by these eradication projects:

  • Coqui frog

    The coqui is a tiny frog that was inadvertently introduced to Hawaii from Puerto Rico in the 1980s.  There are no native frogs in Hawaii, so efforts to eradicate the coqui aren’t predicated on the usual claim that it will out-compete its native counterpart.  In this case, those who launched this campaign claimed that the frog will eat all the insects on the islands, depriving other animals of this food source.  The proposal was to spray highly concentrated caffeine in the forests occupied by the frog.  No tests were conducted to determine what effect this would have on any of the plants or other animals that would be sprayed in the process.

    Strawberry guava, USDS
  • The strawberry guava was introduced to Hawaii as a fruit tree, just as virtually every fruit tree in America was.  The proposal was to eradicate the strawberry guava with biocontrol, which means an insect was introduced that would theoretically feed solely on the strawberry guava.  The theory of biocontrol is more appealing than the reality, which in practice has often introduced new predators that are more difficult to control than the original target.  This eradication effort was also controversial because the strawberry guava is a valuable source of food for all animals in Hawaii, including humans.
  •  Mangroves are coastal forests that are considered valuable nurseries for marine life.  In Hawaii some have been eradicated with herbicides.  The skeletal remains of the mangrove are left to rot in the water, creating an eyesore and a graveyard for the animals that lived there.

                                                Animals are caught in the middle

The endangered monk seal has been caught in the middle of the nativist debate in HawaiiBecause it is endangered, government biologists are obligated by law to try to prevent its extinction.  The monk seal has therefore been introduced to places in the Hawaiian Islands in which it hasn’t previously lived, based on the belief that it will have less competition in these areas.  This introduction of the monk seal into new territory has made it vulnerable to two diametrically opposite sides of this debate.  The monk seals are being bludgeoned to death by someone who doesn’t want them there.  Is it a fisherman who believes the legal protections provided for the endangered seal will threaten his fishing rights?  Or is it one of the nativists who are saying that the seals “don’t belong here?”

Monk Seal, Hawaii Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Sydney Singer is a medical anthropologist who lives in Hawaii.  He is in the forefront of the opposition to the eradication of non-native plants and animals, particularly the toxic methods used by the projects.  He has written a tongue-in-cheek quiz for Hawaiians to get at the bottom of that vexing question about what “belongs” in Hawaii.  With Dr. Singer’s permission, we share this quiz with our readers:

What belongs in Hawaii?

“A NOAA[National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]report released last year showed 35 percent of those surveyed at beaches and popular fishing areas on Kauai and Molokai believed the [monk] seals aren’t native to the islands.

This raises a critical question for our legislators to consider as invasive species eradicators come to the public trough for more money to kill plants and animals that “don’t belong in Hawaii”.

How can we tell what does and doesn’t “belong” in Hawaii? Here is a quiz.

 From the following list, pick the item that best matches your personal prejudice:

  • Any plants or animals that were brought to Hawaii by human beings, including by the Hawaiians, don’t belong here.
  • Any plant or animal brought by the Hawaiians is okay, but those brought by any other culture are bad and don’t belong here. However, alien biocontrol agents, such as insects and fungi which attack plants and animals that don’t belong here, do belong here.
  • Any plants or animals that are useful, beautiful, or in some other way make our lives better belong here, but those that are noxious or poisonous don’t belong here.
  • How do I know?  I’m from New Jersey. I’m just glad to be alive and be living here.

This question is especially important for the invasive species committees and their army of eradicators poisoning, trapping, shooting and infesting our islands to kill species that they have decided “don’t belong.” And now, following their lead, members of the public are killing endangered Monk seals.”

                                                                  The elusive “baseline”

What is Dr. Singer trying to tell us with these rhetorical questions?  He is reminding us that every living creature in the Hawaiian Islands came from somewhere.  When the islands emerged from the sea as volcanoes they were completely barren.  They were slowly populated over millennia by plants and animals brought by the wind, by the sea, by birds and animals.  Humans arrived on the islands over 1,000 years ago when Polynesians came by boat from neighboring islands.  And Captain Cook and his crew were the first Europeans to arrive in the islands in 1778.  Each of these “invasions” brought new creatures.  Many of those creatures are now extinct. The historical food web cannot be recreated because some pieces are missing and some pieces are unknown. So, how can we arrive at a “baseline” which we now attempt to replicate?  It’s a conundrum that illustrates the fundamental absurdity of the entire concept of restoring historical ecology.