Invasives

(This column was first published in the January 29, 2001 Buffalo News.)

    I sit at my desk daydreaming, staring out of my office window across snow covered lawns shining peacefully in the sun. It is a beautiful day, but a document I have been reading reminds me of a remarkable speech delivered to the House of Commons so many years ago. It was given in 1940 when England found itself alone and at its lowest ebb. British troops had just retreated across the channel from Dunkirk when Winston Churchill rose in that chamber to announce, "We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!"

    Thank goodness we do not face so serious a threat to our society, but the publication I have before me represents an escalation of another kind of defensive war. It is the management plan entitled Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge,developed in response to President Clinton's executive order on this subject two years earlier. (Remarkably, the National Invasive Species Council almost met its 18-month deadline in fulfilling this responsibility.)

    Whether or not you consider this a war, invasive species do represent a serious problem. We in the United States currently spend about $137 billion each year fighting these invaders. Invasive plants infest 100 million acres with an additional 3 million acres taken over every year. (That's the area of New York, Pennsylvania and the New England States with two Delawares added each year.) And nearly half of our native plants and animals listed as endangered or threatened on the Endangered Species List are there due to competition with or predation by these aliens.

    Estimates of the actual number of already introduced species vary widely -- from 5000 to over 50,000. But evidence of new threats is readily available: the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture has intercepted 7400 species at entry ports since 1985, about a tenth of which, they estimate, would have proved serious problems.

    Most of us know of at least a few of our defeats: the great chestnut forests destroyed by blight, the lake trout and whitefish fisheries of the Great Lakes overwhelmed by the sea lamprey, but the depredations continue and even expand today. For example, purple loosestrife, that attractive but wetland-devastating plant, takes over an additional 1800 square miles each year.

    Hopefully the newly created agency will be able to marshal our forces to control these enemies not only of those who farm and fish but of us gardeners and consumers as well. It has a huge job cut out for itself as it must oversee activities now located in the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, State and Transportation and authority spread among 44 federal acts.

    Here are a few of those enemies, some of which you might not expect to see included: among plants -- garlic mustard, Japanese honeysuckle and knotweed, kudzu, multiflora rose, Russian olive and Scotch thistle; among animals -- Africanized honeybee, gypsy moth, starling, fire ant, wild boar and zebra mussel; and among microbes -- west Nile virus.

    One of our common insects, the Japanese beetle, despite an 80-year restriction on interstate movement of associated products, continues to spread west at 5-10 miles each year. And our latest newcomer, the viburnum leaf beetle, now restricted to Maine, Staten Island and the lake plains of New York, deserves early attention before we lose all those beautiful shrubs.

    But one thing we are unable to address. We humans are, after all, the most destructive of all North American invasives.-- Gerry Rising