Editorial: Scapegoating alien invaders for real-world trouble

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1999:

The beaver-like nutria, apart from being a mammal and a vegetarian, does not much
resemble a goat. Yet St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, following the earlier example of
Jefferson Parish and the self-serving 10-year-old doctrine of the Louisiana Department of
Wildlife and Fisheries, has now officially begun to treat nutria as an all-purpose scapegoat for
infrastructure damage.
Late on July 20, five members of the St. Bernard Parish SWAT team shot 20 nutria
in a public park. The shooting amounted, however, to little more than target practice, possibly
doing more to discourage after-hours human park traffic than to cut the nutria population.
Jefferson Parish police have shot nutria by the thousand since 1995. Yet Jefferson
Parish still seems to have as many nutria as ever, because the habitat still favors them, and
any successful species tends to breed up to the carrying capacity of the habitat, countering
predation by breeding faster. More intense predation brings faster breeding still.

Thus centuries of cat persecution in rodent-infested medieval Europe appears to have
accentuated the fecundity of cats, the only feline and virtually the only mammalian carnivore
with reproductive capacity comparable to that of their prey species. Thus catch-and-kill never
has eradicated feral cat populations anywhere except on a handful of tiny islands inside the
Antarctic Circle. Thus the U.S. government attempt to exterminate coyotes, begun in 1930,
coincided with the spread of coyotes throughout North America.
Other examples of persecuted species prospering despite the havoc wreaked upon
them include starlings, crows, seagulls, common pigeons, cockroaches, and Norway rats.
It is possible to hunt species to extinction. Within North America, the bison and
beaver offer two examples of intensively hunted species saved at the brink, the prairie dog is
an example of a species much more imperiled by hunting and poisoning than elected officials
dare recognize, and the passenger pigeon is an example of a species extinguished by hunting.
But each of these species had occupied a dominant habitat niche for 10,000 years or
longer with little or no competition before heavy human hunting began, whereas cats, coyotes,
and nutria have never been dominant species, even where they originated, and have
always been quick to adapt themselves to survival on the margins of contested range.
Among conservation biologists, it is currently fashionable to describe the rationale
for protecting and preserving endangered species as, in American Zoo Association science
and conservation director Michael Hutchins’ words, “Preserving the possibility of future evolution,”
by conserving rare genes.
Yet evolutionary history suggests that this is backward. From as far back as paleontology
can trace the bones, the greatest biodiversity has always evolved from widely distributed
and generally successful species. Cats, coyotes, Norway rats, cockroaches and nutria
have huge numbers of living relative species. Many of the most highly endangered species
have none. Because they have not spread into new habitats, they have not been challenged to
adapt or die out. If they are not evolutionary dead ends, of which there have always been
many, it will most likely be because of human intervention. If they disappear, their habitat
niches may disappear with them––or may be filled by invasive species with the capacity to
adapt themselves to the conditions the vanished species couldn’t handle.
To be sure, nutria––like most wildlife––may be more easily seen by the people living
closest to them as prolific pests, rather than as vital contributors to future biodiversity.
They tunnel into canal banks, and are accused of undermining roads, railways, and
pipelines. And, being non-natives, they are in effect illegal aliens: a friendless class of
being, who are easily blamed. Conservationists don’t defend them. Neither do the national
humane organizations, whose wildlife experts prefer to use nutria as a leading example of how
hunting-and-trapping-oriented species management goes wrong. There are many mentions in
anti-fur literature that nutria were brought to Louisiana circa 1926 to stimulate the growth of
the fur trade. Only a handful of New Orleans activists––Pinckney Wood, Odette Grosz, Jeff
and Dana Dorson––stand up to point out that nutria are also sentient beings who do not
deserve being made to senselessly suffer for human sins.
In truth, nutria are scarcely alone in undermining the Louisiana infrastructure.
Native species including muskrats, turtles, and alligators also do it; so do Norway rats, who
have enjoyed much longer tenure. None could cause infrastructure damange if the infrastructure
had not been built and maintained in a vulnerable manner.
ANIMAL PEOPLE recently had the pleasure of spending two weeks in the northern
end of the native range of the nutria, where the Amazon rainforest meets the Andes. From
there to hundreds of miles farther south, into the heart of native nutria habitat, nutria damage
to infrastructure is little known. Yet nutria in that region have relatively few predators––some
caimans, some jaguars, but nothing like the abundance of alligators in Louisiana, whose
resurgence from endangered species status coincides with the growth of the nutria population.
Nutria, in South America, are not kept from doing infrastructure damage by either
humans or natural predators. Rather, the infrastructure itself deters them, and has, since the
ancient Andeans built their major canals and roadways of massive stone blocks. Five hundred
years after the Inca civilization was conquered and ruined, many of the foundations they built
are still in use; the materials from many other Inca structures have been recycled; and the
earthquake-resistant Inca building techniques are still emulated.
This is not, however, because the ancient Andeans realized a potential threat to their
civilization from nutria. Rather, each spring they had to contend with fast-flowing torrents
from mountain snowmelt that carve and erode the entire Amazon basin much as the
Mississippi and tributaries carve their multiple channels and oxbows––only more so. The
Andeans learned to build to last. They somehow learned to take a long view.
Louisiana, meanwhile, seems to have almost totally ignored the weight of scientific
evidence about the combined effects of global warming, oil drilling, and diking the
Mississippi, each of which contributes to lowering the wetlands.
For more than a decade, ever since trapped fur prices crashed in 1988, the Louisiana
Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has had staff members on tour with a slide show about
the alleged harm done to the bayous and tidal marshes by nutria. Since Louisiana Wildlife and
Fisheries used to derive substantial revenue from royalties on trapping nutria, their motive for
mounting the anti-nutria campaign seems fairly obvious, yet––like much else about the nutria
situation in specific and alien species in general––doesn’t get much mention.
Instead, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries people get away with claiming that
nutria are the problem––as if, should every nutria in Louisiana go extinct tomorrow, muskrats
and other vegetation-eating burrowing animals would not quickly breed up to the carrying
capacity of the habitat and take their places.
Indeed, Louisiana wetlands are rapidly disappearing beneath open water. Among
the central arguments that vice president Al Gore has used in his campaign for action on global
warming is a preponderance of scientific agreement that within 50 years as much as a third of
all Louisiana wetlands will be underwater––along with some entire nations, including the
Maldives and Bangladesh. Worst-case scenarios from leading experts are more drastic still.
Killing nutria, or muskrats, or any creature, or even bringing human civilization to
a screeching halt, won’t do a thing to halt the trend. Most of the human contribution to causing
global warming has already been done, and is essentially irreversible.
Better infrastructure might, however, mitigate the damage. But building infrastructure
appropriate to rising seas and a changing coastline is politically unpopular: it means taxes
must rise, and traditional ways of life must change. It means rip-rapping levees with stone or
cement, not just piling up dirt and hoping it will hold. It also means acknowledging that
shrimping and bayou trapping are both inevitably soon to go the way of the Incas, whose era
ended long before the end of the Andean cultural and architectural legacy is even in sight.
Shooting nutria is comparatively cheap and easy. And it allows the people doing it
to pretend they are solving a problem which in fact will continue, until the rising waters claim
nutria habitat right along with that of the humans who thought bullets or poison could kill a
climatic problem.
Making an example of nutria
The nutria situation is only one among many. This editorial could as easily have
addressed the impact of feral cats on declining neotropical migratory songbirds: in fact, the
outdoor cat population seems to be falling even faster, and it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist
monitoring photographs taken from space to see that the biggest problem for neotropical
migratory songbirds is deforestation across much of the southern end of their range. Their second
biggest problem––as we documented in a March 1997 cover feature––is deer, boosted to
unnatural abundance by hunter-dominated wildlife management. Crashing through the forest
understory and eating shrubbery bare, native deer ravage neotropical migratory songbird nesting
habitat. Ceasing manipulation of hunting quotas to maintain a “huntable surplus” of deer
is the easy answer to that problem.
We have only to open our files on any wildlife-related problem to find parallel examples.
Common denominators are human activity colliding with environmental limits; the
symptomatic success of an introduced species; and resources being diverted into attacking the
“alien invader” instead of going toward amending the causal human behavior. The common
outcome is that no matter how viciously the alleged invasive species is attacked, the human
activity must change, sooner or later, while killing the scapegoat turns out to have done little
beyond increasing what the late Henry Spira termed “The universe of pain and suffering.”
Just before authoring this editorial, we reviewed all of the technical documents pertaining
to “invasive species” at the extensive web site of the Convention on Biological
Diversity. We found no use of the word “humane,” nor any discussion of the concept.
Neither did we find any evidence that major humane organizations have taken an interest, to
date, in influencing the direction of a worldwide purge-in-planning (see page one) of nonnative
animals. Humane monitoring and attempted intercession has so far been left to volunteers
rallied by Jim Brewer and Dale Riffle of Pigs: A Sanctuary (10 Sanctuary Lane, Charles
Town, WV 25414; >>PIGSANCT@aol.com<<).
Perhaps the national humane groups fear the clout of the hunter/conservationists who
seem to be driving the war-chariot and flogging the horses. Perhaps they are afraid that donors
will not rally to the cause of “nuisance” species.
But humane values are not just about keeping dog-and-cat control from upsetting the
sensitive. They should apply as much to a gut-shot nutria as any other being, scarce or common,
who can feel pain, fear, and grief. Humane values should be central to national and
international ecological planning. And, most important, ecological planners and campaigners
should be brought to recognize that if a response to any problem isn’t humane, it likely won’t be
effective, either, because it amounts to scapegoating instead of amending whatever is wrong.

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