If your community is fighting invasive species, you know how frustrating and expensive it can get. If you have escaped their invasion thus far, the good news is that you have some extra ammunition in the knowledge gained from battles won.
Much of that knowledge is collected and shared by the federal government’s National Invasive Species Council (NSIC) created by Executive Order 13112 in 1999.
To give you an idea of how much concern there is over invasive species, the NISC is co-chaired by the U.S. secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture and Commerce. NISC members include the secretaries of State, Defense, Homeland Security, Treasury, Transportation, Health and Human Services, the U.S. Trade representative, as well as the administrators of the EPA, NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
NISC Executive Director Lori Williams said the council provides high-level interdepartmental coordination of federal invasive species actions and works with other federal and non-federal groups to address invasive species issues at the national level. In effect, NSIC is the “point man” in our war against alien plants, animals and pathogens.
“Invasive species are a large problem on a number of fronts — economic, environmental and human and wildlife wellness,” Williams said.
“There are 50,000 non-native species here and about 5,000 or fewer are invasive. The problem is that only one or two can do a lot of damage. Invasive species are a huge drain on biodiversity. Existing species, for example, can be displaced and replaced by only one invasive species, which creates undesirable monocultures. It is amazing that a hundred thousand to a million acres can be changed.”
Then there is the economic damage. Williams said it costs the U.S. more than $100 billion a year. The Nature Conservancy, which is working to control invasive species in every state and 30 countries, reports the estimated damage from invasive species worldwide totals more than $1.4 trillion -- five percent of the global economy.
What are invasive species?
The NISC defines an "invasive species" as a species that is: 1) non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration and, 2) whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health. Invasive species can be plants, animals, and other organisms (e.g., microbes). Human actions are the primary means of invasive species introductions.
According to Williams, an invasive species, which can be found in any habitat, is one that has to be moved from its own ecosystem to another, accidentally or on purpose.
Humans, of course, have been bringing plants and animals here since America was discovered. Species continue to “hitchhike” here, and have increased significantly with the growth of travel, trade and tourism.
One of the earliest and most pesky invasive species is the coypu (river rat or nutria), a semi aquatic rodent originally native to South America that was introduced into Louisiana in the 1890s by fur ranchers, and also introduced into Europe, Asia and Africa. Williams said the nutria literally eats wetland vegetation until it is gone, wasting 90 percent of it. A successful program at Maryland’s Backwater National Wildlife Refuge is restoring wetlands attacked by nutria.
Popular Mechanics magazine picks constrictors, Asian carp, zebra mussels, the mongoose and starlings as the top 5 most damaging invasive species in the U.S.
Invasive species have had a much more significant impact on America since the 1970s and particularly since the late 1980s. A classic is the zebra mussel that infested the Great Lakes and resulted in the Non-indigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act of 1990.
“The gypsy moth was another destructive species,” Williams said. “But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has done a good job of stopping its spread. This is the result of cooperation among a number of states. Today, this regional model works really well against other pests. Plus we have created more of an infrastructure to deal with agricultural pests.”
Other tree pests that have caused significant damage include the Asian longhorn beetle and the emerald ash borer, which Williams calls the “poster child” for invasive species on the East Coast. Losing trees is especially tough on the budget and quality of life in any community.
“Many small cities in the Midwest have spent millions of dollars fighting species that attack trees. You lose the trees, pay to remove them and face suits if anything happens when they fall. And by the time you discover you have a big problem, it’s too late,” noted Williams.
Weeds are also a big problem. Florida, for example, spent about $20 million fighting very prolific weeds that covered the surface of bodies of water, killing fish, lowering property values and ruining recreation. Plants such as Himalayan blackberries, Scotch broom, canary grass and ivy invade parklands and are very difficult to remove and eliminate.
“But the good news is that we have a lot more tools in our toolbox today than we had 15 years ago to fight invasive species. We urge communities to contact NSIC for help with any issue related to invasive species.”
Williams provides overall direction on national and international invasive species policy development and serves as the principle council contact at the national level with other federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, state and local governments, and tribes.
She supervises the NSIC staff, reviews and recommends legislative proposals, and briefs top federal officials regarding invasive species issues.
“We are particularly interested in improving coordination and building partnerships with state and local governments,” she added. Twenty-six states have their own invasive species council.
Williams said education and public awareness are vital in defeating invasive species. Federal, state and local agencies, universities, industry groups and others have developed an impressive array of educational outreach and training materials.
“Becoming aware is big,” Williams said. “If you are aware and find infestation early enough, it can be less expensive to treat and control pests. Try to deal with it early; prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The council also has a lot better data and better control technology, added Williams.
NSIC has established a National Invasive Species Awareness week, just held from February 26 through March 3, an observance now spreading among the states. The council is also conducting a number of public awareness campaigns, reported Williams.
These include discouraging campers from taking firewood that might contain pests from home to a camping site, stopping aquatic “hitchhiker” species by not taking boats from lake-to-lake, not releasing unwanted exotic pets into habitats, and properly disposing of invasive species, including bagging. Fishermen are being asked to do such a simple thing as cleaning their waders. Communities can take advantage of these existing stop-the-spread campaigns, or start their own.
Prevention is a major tool in the council’s war against invasive species. “We are chipping away at how things are getting into the country. For example, we discovered that things shipped by trading partners in solid packing material -- mostly dead wood -- were bringing unwanted species into Chicago, and later into New York City and New England.
“We have been able to cut into that. Also, a lot of invasive species come in ship ballast water and on plants people import. We are more diligent about stopping this. And, states are also taking a more active role in policing imports.”
Equally important, said Williams, is working with other countries. “Invasive species policies vary widely, but global awareness is expanding. Grey squirrels are a huge problem in Europe, but they are fine here. There are a number on international treaties and agreements that cover the spread of pests from country to country. While trade is a sensitive issue for many reasons, the world can work together on this.”
Finally, the current economy is not helping municipal budgets; many communities are facing large issues, but not dealing with invasive species can be very costly down the road. Since invasive species know no boundaries, neighboring communities need to work together. People need to get involved and volunteer. “I can’t stress the importance of volunteers enough. It is amazing what you can do with 100 people in one day working to clear invasive weeds from a shoreline.”
Williams and her staff is working on what she refers to as “rapid response” funding for the costs of fighting invasive species despite federal, state and local budget problems.
“Depending on the issue, it may not be invasive-specific, but there could be money available under a federal farm program or a state forestry grant. Some states have their own rapid-response money. We ask people to call us since we work with virtually every invasive species public and private agency or organization,” said Williams.
The council website includes a listing of requests for proposals and details on grants that have been awarded. Two other sources are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Center for Invasive Plant Management, which is based in Bozeman, Mont. and covers the western U.S.
“We are all trying to get ahead of the curve on this using any tools and resources that work,” said Williams.