What will Bush do about ferals?

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2001:

WASHINGTON D.C.–Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge, the National Invasive Species Council management plan, was sent to the White House on January 18, 2001. Two years in development, the plan offers strategy through 2003 for a Cabinet-led crusade against
non-native wildlife. But the eight Cabinet members who signed it were already on
their way out of Washington D.C. Just two days from leaving office, former U.S. President
Bill Clinton probably never saw the plan. Whether anyone of rank in the George W. Bush administration will ever pay much attention to it remains unclear.

The only mention of invasive species by a senior Republican since Bush took office seems to have been a February 7 endorsement by Representative Wayne Gilchrest (R-Maryland) of a new National Audubon Society report which named water pollution and invasive species as the two leading threats to birds at 10 National Wildlife Refuges occupying parts of 13 states. “There is a crisis,” said Gilchrest, the newly named chair of the House Resources Subcommittee on fisheries conservation, wildlife, and oceans.

If the National Invasive Species Council management plan is implemented, it will be under new Interior Secretary Gail Norton, new Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, and new Commerce Secretary Donald Evans. None, as yet, have any clear history pertaining to
“invasive” species.

Norton, with the lead responsibility for enforcing the Endangered Species Act, is notably less dedicated to the ideas of restoring pre-Columbian habitat and promoting native biodiversity at any cost than her predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, whose idea the National Invasive Species Council reputedly was.

Veneman can be expected to fight agricultural predators and pests, including the Mediterranean fruit fly, which she previously fought in various roles in California. Her office may not care, however, whether a pest is “native” or “invasive.” Evans may regard proposed strict new regulations on discharges of ships’ ballast water–a priority for the authors of Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge–as unnecessarily encumbering trade.

Clinton, on the eve of his February 1999 impeachment trial before the U.S. Senate, directed Babbitt, former Agriculture Secretary Daniel Glickman, and former Commerce Secretary William Daley to “mobilize the federal government to defend against aggressive predators and pests.” As the first members of the National Invasive Species Council, they added seats for the Secretaries of Defense, State, Transport-ation, and Treasury, plus then-Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner.

Should the National Invasive Species Council continue activity under George W. Bush, Browner would be succeeded by new EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman. As former Governor of New Jersey, Whitman probably has had more direct experience with invasive species issues than anyone else close to Bush–and had a generally positive record in both protecting species and opposing cruelty.

Clinton gave the National Invasive Species Council a starting budget of $28.8 million–coincidentally the same as the annual budget for USDA Wildlife Services. Wildlife Services, the federal extermination agency since 1931, had narrowly survived the Congressional budget ax just six months earlier. By creating the National Invasive Species Council, Clinton seemed to promise key western Senators–mostly Republicans–that the role and budget of the agency would be reinforced, so that it could go on killing coyotes and other species whom ranchers find annoying.

As expected, Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge touts USDA Wildlife Services. Page 54, for example, explains that it has already “conducted operational activities on a minimum of 44 species of invasive animals, including 17 mammal species, 25 bird species, and two reptile species.” Yet the Bush administration may see no need to be coy about backing Wildlife Services, with or without a cosmetic reorientation of mission. And direct White House favor would give Wildlife Services more leeway to kill so-called nuisance wildlife than having to go through the exercise of designating “invasive” species. This would probably be the approach favored by House whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), a key Bush ally and former professional exterminator.

Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of State Colin Powell, hunters all, could also be leary of opposing the proliferation of exotic species favored by hunters– like the estimated 3,000 oryx flourishing at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico since 1969, of whom up to 1,000 per year are shot, and feral pigs, now thriving throughout the U.S. below the snowbelt.

In addition, pursuing a strict policy against feral non-native species could put Bush’s younger brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, in the awkward position of having to cooperate with flamingo removal. Though flamingos have become a Florida icon, they were actually introduced from Moron, Cuba, in 1931 by former Hialeah Park race track owner Joseph E. Widener. The first flock of 30 flew home when released. Widener clipped the wings of the next flock, who had no choice but to stay and breed.

Much of Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge, explains the Executive Summary, “concerns better policing of “means and routes by which invasive species are imported and introduced into new environments, called ‘pathways.'” The Bush administration is unlikely to have qualms about cracking down on illegal immigrants from Mexico, who often bring non-native parrots and reptiles with them for sale as pets. But Bush, Cheney, and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, whose backgrounds are in the oil industry, may feel differently about inhibiting the international movement of offshore oil rigs.

Researchers have recently learned that oil rigs towed from one part of the world to another can take whole aquatic ecologies with them, and are probing the possibility that the 4,000 rigs now working in the Gulf of Mexico brought non-native jellyfish who eat the larvae of fish and crustaceans and are accordingly blamed for the decline of Gulf fisheries. Some of the jellyfish are also suspected of producing a toxin lethal to sea turtles –for whom jellyfish are a major food source.

No hit list

Essentially a term paper completed after the public graded the authors, Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge offers mainly statements of principle. Most of the recommendations are broad, flexible, and ambiguous. There is no species-specific “hit list. Few individual species are mentioned. The words “bird,” “mammal,” “fish,” and “reptile” are used just a handful of times. Plants and mollusks are discussed most, followed by insects and micro-organisms.

But the language is guarded, not exclusive. Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge could be used to rationalize and expand almost any current wildlife extermination or removal program. Cats are never named, for instance, yet the management plan might be cited in support of the American Bird Conservancy and National Audubon Society efforts to halt neuter/return feral cat control programs, in favor of old-fashioned catch-and-kill.

New York Aquarium director Lou Garibaldi could quote Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge to back his claim, much ridiculed by New York media, that Coney Island feral cats pose a threat to the aquarium penguins and sea otters. Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources wildlife manager David Smith could invoke Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge in defense of a reported policy of shooting cats who “look unowned.”

Silent on cruelty

Conspicuously missing from Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge is any acceptance that invasive species control should avoid cruelty–as ANIMAL PEOPLE noted during the comment period on the draft management plan published last summer. “Nowhere in the entire 114 pages does the word ‘humane’ even appear,” ANIMAL PEOPLE wrote, as almost the only humane voice to submit comment. “Nowhere is the concept of humane treatment of sentient species even discussed. Humane representatives have been totally excluded from the planning process–even though the humane community has an active donor base of one household in four across the U.S.

“We have never seen any significant opposition from the humane community,” ANIMAL PEOPLE continued, “to the concept of removing non-native animals from habitat when necessary to protect endangered or threatened native wildlife,” a major concern of the mainstream environmental organizations whose thinking largely shaped the draft plan.

“However, there is intense opposition to such practices as snaring feral pigs and leaving them to die of starvation and dehydration, as the Nature Conservancy has done in Hawaii for more than 15 years; gut-shooting goats and burros, as the Catalina Islands Conserv-ancy has done off the coast of California on a mass scale for more than 20 years; poisoning animals en masse, a common practice against unwanted wildlife across the U.S.; and blasting parrots’ nests apart, scalding the hatchlings to death with steam hoses, as recently occurred in Florida. USDA Wildlife Services and the U.S. Geological Survey,” expected to be the agencies most often contracted to fight invasive species, “countenance extraordinary
cruelty as a routine way of doing business.
“There isn’t a day that passes,” ANIMAL PEOPLE emphasized, “without our receiving word of some inhumane action undertaken to eradicate an alleged invasive species-and some of the ‘science’ behind these efforts is extraordinarily bad. “Consider the plight of the Catalina Islands fox,” ANIMAL PEOPLE cited. “Predation by non-native golden eagles is blamed for the abrupt decline of the fox, but the actual cause was leaving gut-shot hooved stock to become carrion. This not only caused the fox population to surge to a perhaps excessive height, but also baited in golden eagles from the California mainland, who turned to eating foxes when the carrion ran scarce.
“Live removal of the non-native hooved stock,” ANIMAL PEOPLE noted, “practiced when permitted by the Fund for Animals and In Defense of Animals, might have taken longer, although it is hard to imagine that it could have taken longer than the 20-odd years that the shooting has taken to date. But chances are excellent that it would not only have prevented thousands of hooved animals from suffering excruciating deaths, but would also have avoided wreaking havoc on the endangered foxes.” ANIMAL PEOPLE recommended that the comment period on the draft plan should be extended, and that humane organizations should be invited to offer their input.

USDA risk analysis specialist Richard Orr, then on temporary loan to the National Invasive Species council, wrote in a July 24 memo to fellow federal agency liaisons Gordon Brown of the Department of the Interior, Rebecca Bech of the USDA, and Dean Wilkinson of the Department of Commerce, “I concur with ANIMAL PEOPLE that consideration of the humane treatment of animals should be taken into account, and that this should be visibly stated. I also would advise that ANIMAL PEOPLE should be placed on our Interested Parties list, to insure that they are kept informed.”
None of this was done. Instead, ANIMAL PEOPLE learned of the publication of Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge through an e-mail from Invasive Species advisory committee member Marshall Meyers, attorney for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. Meyers, though at odds with most national humane organizations for most of his career, in October 1999 volunteered to help ANIMAL PEOPLE keep up with National Invasive Species Council proceedings.


Stepping gingerly between conflicting political interests, the Executive Summary of Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge indirectly recognizes the paradox inherent in bioxenophobia [fear of introduced species] in the second paragraph.

“Most U.S. food crops and domesticated animals are non-native,” the summary acknowledges, “and their beneficial value is obvious–for instance, managed livestock are examples of non-native species which are non-invasive,” even as the same species are aggressively targeted if feral. “Many other non-native species are simply benign,” the authors concede. “An ‘invasive species’ is defined as a species not native to the ecosystem, whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm, or harm to human health.”

Several other passages skirt potential conflict with animal use industries and other branches of government. Nutria, for example, released during the 1930s by fur trappers in Louisiana, Florida, the Chesapeake Bay region, and the Columbia River basin as a potential replacement for trapped-out beaver, are described as having been “originally imported for a private zoo,” which is technically correct but does not explain their distribution.

The Introduction claims that sea lampreys “caused the collapse of the lake trout and whitefish fisheries in the Great Lakes,” an oversimplification omitting the impacts of overfishing, the destruction of spawning areas by pollution, and the deliberate introduction by state wildlife agencies of non-native trout and salmon, who outcompeted the lake trout.

Brown tree snakes believed to have been brought to Guam as stowaways aboard U.S. military transport aircraft during the 1940s are blamed–as they often are–for allegedly driving “nine of Guam’s 11 native land bird species to extinction.” But that overlooks the effects on the 217-square-mile Guam land habitat of the 1941 Japanese invasion, the U.S. recapture of the island in 1944, and the subsequent development of more than a third of the land area as a U.S. military air base.
Two instances of introduced species controlling invasive species are mentioned, the first without evident awareness. “Bubonic plague,” the Introduction asserts, “is perhaps history’s most infamous example of a vectored disease. It was spread by non-native black rats carrying disease infected fleas.” Omitted is that the black rats were able to invade Europe as rapidly as they did during the Black Death years of 1334-1354 because the outbreak was initially blamed on witchcraft, bringing purges of cats as alleged witches’ “familiars.”

The London bubonic plague outbreak of 1665 likewise followed a cat purge–and the most recent major bubonic plague outbreak, in 1994 at Surat, India, followed a mass poisoning of street dogs. In each instance, exterminating one “invasive” species let another run amok.

Al Cofrancesco of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contributed to Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge a boxed sidebar extolling the use of Argentinian flea beetles, stem borers, and thrips since 1959 to control alligator weed in the southern U.S., Australia, New Zealand, China, and Thailand.

“Take action now”

Deep in the interior of Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge, the authors acknowledge that inflated guesstimates of invasive species damage are often used by people and organizations eager to promote control measures, and that there is a need to use such data with caution.
The Executive Summary, however, cites two sensational claims advanced by Gordon Brown, one of the recipients of the Richard Orr memo asking for “consideration of the humane treatment of animals,” as part of a study he produced in 1998 with Cornell University professor David Pimentel. Brown and Pimentel argued that alien plants and animals cost the U.S. $137 billion a year, and are responsible for jeopardizing 46% of the species on the U.S. endangered species list.

Brown and Pimentel arrived at these numbers by including all costs of rat control, the estimated $30 million-a-year cost of treating dog bites, $10 million in livestock losses purportedly caused by dogs, and $6 million a year for the lost insect-eating capacity of birds believed to have been killed by outdoor cats. Brown, the original executive director of the National Invasive Species Council, reportedly told Knight Ridder Newspapers science reporter Seth Borenstein that he hoped to form “something like a cross between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a wildfire fighting force, that can parachute in to contain the spread of exotics.”

Soon thereafter, Brown was replaced by fisheries law expert Lori C. Williams, who has four times been appointed to sensitive posts by Democrats, most recently as special assistant to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service chief Jamie Clark, and may not have a long tenure under the Bush administration. The Brown influence remains evident. Pages 16 and 31 of Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge include descriptions similar to Brown’s of a “rapid response team” to be formed to fight alleged invasive species. Appendix 6, meanwhile, outlines a “shoot first and ask questions later” approach as “Guiding Principle #1: take action now.”

Down Under

Page 37 of Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge praises Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa for having “invested in the development of well-coordinated policies and programs to address” non-native wildlife. As ANIMAL PEOPLE pointed out of the Down Under strategy in May 2000, and as Chris Mercer of the Kalahari Raptor Center affirmed regarding South Africa in a December 2000 guest column plus a January/February 2001 follow-up letter, these “policies and programs” originated at the height of the since dismantled “White Australia” and apartheid policies.

They blamed non-native species for the effects of aggressive sport hunting and conversions of habitat to agricultural use, invoked bioxenophobia to rationalize discouragement of immigration and commerce involving persons not of European descent, and continue to rationalize mayhem.

At Guy Fawkes River National Park in Australia, for instance, National Parks and Wildlife Service staff in October 2000 shot 606 feral horses from aircraft. Some wounded horses suffered for up to nine days before they were found and dispatched. Earlier in 2000, the Australian Natural Resources and Environment Department solicited public help in combatting the allegedly invasive northern Pacific sea star in Port Phillip Bay. Confused volunteers massacred native 11-armed sea stars–a major predator of northern Pacific sea stars.
Much of the activity Down Under is not even consistent in theory with the stated purpose of eliminating non-native species. The introduction of rabbit calicivirus to Australia in 1995 and New Zealand in 1996, for instance, involved the most aggressive deliberate intercontinental spread of a disease on record–although that dubious distinction may soon be challenged by U.S. plans to introduce the plant fungus Fusarium oxysporum to Colombia to kill cocaine and heroin crops. Rabbit calicivirus causes rabbits to die in agony from internal bleeding.

The loss of rabbits as food source has in turn caused Australian wedgetailed eagles to decline, whose original prey long since lost their habitat to sheep. To reduce competition of native kangaroos with sheep, South Australia Department of Environment and Heritage ecologist Peter Last recently asked the state and federal governments to boost the kangaroo culling quota from the present 380,000 to 763,000.
Attempts to purge feral camels, meanwhile, have evolved into a lucrative traffic in exporting camels for slaughter in the Middle East. Exporters are allowed to ship no more than 20,000 camels per year, insuring that the estimated population of 250,000 will continue to support the trade.
Page 77 of Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge recommends use of the Endangered Species Act as a source of “powerful management tools,” a phrase wildlife agencies most often recite in defense of sport hunting, leghold traps, and Compound 1080 (a poison most often used to kill coyotes.)

Within the past year the Endangered Species Act has been invoked to stop stocking non-native trout in California mountain lakes where they are believed to be eating several species of frogs and salamanders toward extinction–a good example of nonlethal intervention–but has also been used to rationalize poisoning whole lakes in Alaska, Idaho, and Tennessee, trapping feral cats at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and killing species ranging from tiny tree frogs to feral cattle in Hawaii.

Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge reviews other relevant federal laws, with the conspicuous omission of the 1971 Wild and Free Ranging Horse and Burro Protection Act. Never popular with ranchers, hunters, and plant conservationists, the law has often been enforced more to remove “surplus” horses and burros from range leased to ranchers by Bureau of Land Management than to keep wild horses from being sold to slaughter, as it was supposed to do.
The National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board recently authorized the BLM to reduce the estimated U.S. wild horse population from circa 45,000 to 22,000 during the next five years. The horse adoption market, however, was long since glutted by previous wild horse roundups, leaving the fate of newly captured horses unclear.

Propaganda blitz

Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge repeatedly urges an anti-invasive species propaganda offensive, which–although government agencies are offically not allowed to lobby–could indirectly assist advocacy group efforts to repeal or amend relevant legislation, including the Wild and Free Ranging Horse and Burro Protection Act.

Under the heading “Actions Planned,” the National Invasive Species Council is to “coordinate development and implementation of a national public awareness campaign” by July 2001, funded by the USDA, Department of the Interior, National Sea Grant Program, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A parallel global campaign is also to be developed, including regional workshops to be co-hosted by Brazil, Costa Rica, Denmark, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Yet there is no discussion in Meeting the Invasive Species Challenge of why past efforts to persuade the public to fight alien species have mostly failed. For example, the wildlife agencies of Maryland, Connecticut, Vermont, and several other states have tried for nearly 20 years to convince the public to allow their staff to exterminate feral mute swan flocks of from a few dozen to a few thousand birds. The public has not bought the argument that the presence of the mute swans inhibits the recovery of tundra swans, in part because there has never been much evidence that mute swans are occupying essential habitat for tundra swans.

The public has been skeptical of claims that mute swans might jeopardize human safety, since the swans rarely pay much attention to people unless their nests are disturbed. The public has also generally appreciated the mute swans’ beauty and devotion to their mates, and their tendency to keep often problematic nonmigratory Canada geese out of their habitat.

As the National Invasive Species Council tries to boost bioxenophobia to perpetuate itself, there are signs that some wildlife managers are becoming skeptical that all successful
immigrant species need to be purged. Says Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection senior fisheries biologist Penny Howell, of finding Japanese shore crabs in Long Island Sound, “If the shore crabs were doing damage like the zebra mussel, we’d take a more active approach. But I think we’ve learned that it’s usually better to let Mother Nature handle these things.”

And that is just what Mother Nature did to non-native fish including Mayan cichlids, jewel cichlids, and jaguar goupotes during a late January 2001 freeze at Everglades National Park in Florida. Native fish were barely affected, but the non-natives died by the tens of thousands.

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