Editorial feature: Getting wise to “invasive species” rhetoric

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2011:

In the name of eradicating non-native
“invasive” species, the Texas House of
Representatives on April 4, 2011 voted 137-9 in
favor of a bill to allow landowners to sell
hunters the chance to shoot feral pigs and
coyotes from helicopters.
Feral pigs have only been in Texas for
about 300 years, twice as long as ten-gallon
Stetson hats and Texas-style cowboy boots, but
coyotes have evolved in the vicinity from their
Miacias ancestors for 12 to 15 million years.
Indeed coyotes much resembling those of today had
already inhabited Texas for approximately nine
million years before the first creature even
dimly resembling a Texas legislator evolved
knuckle-walking in what is now Kenya and Ethiopia
and began to stand upright.

Bill sponsor Sid Miller of Stephensville
told Jay Root of Associated Press that he added
coyotes to the aerial hit list because “They’ve
started encroaching in urban areas,” killing pets
and frightening parents of small children.
Wild coyotes, within recorded history,
have killed exactly one person in the U.S., in
1981, and one in Canada, in 2009. Since 1979
at least 10 pilots and air gunners have killed
themselves in crashes while in hot pursuit of
coyotes. Twenty-eight more pilots and air
gunners have been injured–and that counts only
those who worked for the U.S. government. Thus
the odds alone suggest that pet keepers and
parents should have far more to fear just from
airborne hunters plowing into houses than from
coyotes, never mind the bullets.
But Miller merely introduced a way for
landowners to make a buck from a practice which
already exists. Texas landowners are already
allowed to personally shoot alleged invasive
species from helicopters. The legal hit list
includes red foxes, bobcats, and stray dogs.
Bobcats, as it happens, have evolved in
Texas for approximately as long as the glacial
alluvial mud which, combined with manure, was
baked into adobe to construct the Alamo.
Truth is, though, that eradicating
“invasive” species is just the current
politically correct term for what used to be
called “pest control.” Bobcats, hardly
numerous, let alone “invasive,” are listed as
targets because before the advent of factory
farming they were known to hunt barnyard
chickens. Bobcats remain on the list today,
long after commercially raised chickens ceased to
be vulnerable, simply because hunters still like
to shoot them.
“That’s not sport. That’s not hunting.
That’s not the Texas way!” objected Brownsville
representative Eddie Lucio, who opposed the
helicopter hunting bill.
But 137 of his colleagues then made it the Texas way.
Shooting feral pigs from helicopters was
before the Kansas legislature about two weeks
before the Texas legislature took up the issue.
“Looks like to me, if shooting these immigrating
feral hogs works,” remarked Republican state
representative Virgil Peck, “maybe we have
found a (solution) to our illegal immigration
Peck profusely apologized after catching
political heat for his comments from Republican
leaders who hope to woo Spanish-speaking voters,
but his quip was nonetheless indicative of why
the “invasive” label has gained the political
traction it has in the past decade, even as
“pest control” and “predator control” fell from
Commented anthropologist Hugh Raffles in
the April 2, 2011 edition of The New York Times,
“The anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the
country, from draconian laws in Arizona to armed
militias along the Mexican border, has taken
many Americans by surprise. It
shouldn’tŠNon-native animals and plants too are
commonly labeled as aliens, even though they
also provide significant benefits to their new
“While the vanguard of the anti-immigrant
crusade is found among the likes of the Minutemen
and the Tea Party,” Raffles continued, “the
native species movement is led by
environmentalists, conservationists and
gardeners. Despite cultural and political
differences, both [movements] are motivated–in
Margaret Thatcher’s infamous phrase–by the fear
of being swamped by aliens. But just as America
is a nation built by waves of immigrants,”
Raffles observed, as author of the
award-winning entomological and cultural study
Insectopedia, “our natural landscape is a
shifting mosaic of plant and animal life. Like
humans, plants and animals travel, often in
ways beyond our knowledge and control. They
arrive unannounced, encounter unfamiliar
conditions and proceed to remake each other and
their surroundings. Designating some as native
and others as alien denies this ecological and
genetic dynamism. It draws an arbitrary
historical line based as much on aesthetics,
morality and politics as on science, a line that
creates a mythic time of purity before places
were polluted by interlopers. What’s more, many
of the species we now think of as natives may not
be especially well suited to being here,”
Raffles added. “They might be, in an ecological
sense, temporary residents, no matter how
permanent they seem to us.”

Rebutting E.O. Wilson

While the Texas legislature has been
known in recent years to deny the existence of
evolution, Raffles studies and teaches it–and
offers a counterpoint to E.O. Wilson, the
entomologist turned environmental philosopher who
has provided the primary rationalizations of our
time for exterminating “non-native” species.
Wilson in The Theory of Island
Biogeography (1967) contributed to the concept of
“island ecology,” which uses the interactions of
limited numbers of species in isolated habitat as
a model and metaphor for ecological change in
transitional mainland habitats–where animals and
plants are continually challenged by abundant
rivals and predators, and have omnipresent
opportunity to either migrate or adapt to new
habitat niches.
In Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975)
Wilson produced the most influential case for
“social Darwinism” since the rise of eugenics in
the first half of the 20th century. Unlike any
theory that Charles Darwin himself advanced,
“Social Darwinism” asserts that the
socio-economic status quo exists essentially as
an inevitable outcome of evolutionary processes,
which better equip the affluent ruling classes
for success in life.
Darwin, as American Museum of Natural
History paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould pointed
out in rebuttal to Wilson, was cognizant that
changing circumstance could dramatically change
the requirements for evolutionary success, so as
to doom the mighty dinosaurs while enabling meek
rodents to inherit the earth.
Wilson had already been lecturing about a
purported “extinction crisis” for several years
before detailing his case for it The Diversity of
Life (1992). Extrapolating from the “island
ecology” theorem, Wilson projected that tens of
thousands of never detected and never to be
detected insects and microbes nonetheless exist
in unique “biological islands” of mainland
habitat, and are being lost to habitat
destruction at astronomical rates.
Further drawing from actual island
examples, Wilson blamed species not native to
“biological islands” for much of his projected
species loss rate.
In The Creation (2009) Wilson proposed
that “”Science and religionŠshould come together
to save the creation” of either evolution or God.
Between writing his other books Wilson produced
four tomes about ants, of which the most
influential may be Success & Dominance in
Ecosystems: The Case of the Social Insects (1990).
Though not a eugenicist, creationist,
or climate change denier in the simplistic,
fundamentalist sense, Wilson’s work as a whole
reinforces the pre-Darwinian notion that all
species and human socio-economic strata have a
particular and relatively unchanging place in the
natural order, and ideally function with each
element in that place–like an ant hill. Wilson
in essence postulates that the world was a
perfect Garden of Eden until humans began moving
species around contrary to the natural order.
Critics, feminists especially, have
noted that Wilson’s world view appears to reflect
his upbringing in then-segregated Birmingham,
Alabama, and Washington D.C., and his
subsequent success as a tenured member of the
faculty at Harvard University, a
gender-segregated institution for most of the
first half of his career.
Despite the rebuttals by Gould, and
those of prominent feminists, who have focused
on the future implications of Wilson’s theories
for humans rather than his science and the
implications for animals, Wilson’s central ideas
have become canon among both mainstream
conservationists and many political conservatives.

Biodiversity is up in most habitats

But University of New Mexico biology
professor James H. Brown, for one, recognized
holes in the Wilsonian hypothesis more than 20
years ago. Brown and his former graduate student
Dov F. Sax, now an assistant professor at the
University of Georgia’s Institute for Ecology,
in the April/June 2007 edition of the journal
Conservation responded to the question, “Do
biological invasions decrease biodiversity?” by
agreeing that “As the human population grows and
spreads, native plants and animals become
extinct; humans are introducing species into new
areas, both intentionally and unintentionally.
And we know,” Brown and Sax added, “that global
biodiversity is decreasing as a result of
human-assisted invasions. But on a local level,
things look quite different.
“At small scales,” Brown and Sax pointed
out, “the extinction of native species has
typically been more than offset by the
colonization of invading species.
Already-abundant and widespread species have
expanded their ranges, more than compensating in
local species richness for the restricted endemic
forms that have disappeared. This does not mean
that exotic species have not caused extinctions.
It simply means that, on average, there is
locally fewer than one extinction of a native
species for every successful colonization of an
alien species. This will come as a surprise to
many who believe that biodiversity is decreasing
everywhere on earth. But it is true,” Brown and
Sax continued, “for continents as well as
islands. North America presently has more
terrestrial bird and mammal species than when the
first Europeans arrived five centuries ago…Out
of a total flora of approximately 6,000 vascular
plant species, California has more than 1,000
naturalized exotics; yet fewer than 30 natives
are known to have become extinct.
“The asymmetry holds even on islands and
insular habitats,” Brown and Sax offered, in
direct challenge to the “island ecology’ model.
“Within the last few centuries following European
colonization, relatively few insular endemic
plant species have become extinct, whereas
invading species have approximately doubled the
size of island floras-from 2,000 to 4,000 on New
Zealand; 1,300 to 2,300 on Hawaii; 221 to 421
on Lord Howe Island, Australia; 50 to 111 on
Easter Island; and 44 to 80 on Pitcairn Island.”
Brown and Sax conceded to conventional
opinon, however, that, “The net effect is
still a loss of global biodiversity. Many of the
invading alien species,” Brown and Sax noted,
“are common and widely distributed. By contrast,
many of the native species that have gone extinct
were endemics and have thus been lost forever.”
But, had Brown and Sax referred back to
Charles Darwin, they might have been reminded
that many of the most unique species and
subspecies whom Darwin studied in the Galapagos
Islands, who inspired him to write On The Origin
of Species, are locally adapted variants of
common and widely distributed species–among them
green iguanas, finches, and penguins.
Evolution and adaptation do not stop simply
because one species displaces another, or
occupies a habitat niche vacated by another
species who could not adapt appropriately to
changing conditions.
Wrote University of Maryland Institute
for Philosophy & Public Policy director Mark
Sagoff as part of the same Conservation
discussion of so-called invasive species, “That
nonnative species harm the natural environment is
a dictum so often repeated that one may assume it
rests on evidence. It does not. Biologists
often use pejorative terms such as ‘pollute,’
‘meltdown,’ ‘harm,’ ‘destroy,’ ‘disrupt,’ and
‘degrade’ when speaking about nonnative species.
These words, along with metaphors borrowed from
war and from cancer, pack political punch.
Insofar as they convey aesthetic, moral, or
spiritual judgments, they have a place in
political debates and policy discussions.
“What troubles me as a philosopher,”
Sagoff explained, “is that these value-laden
terms and their underlying concepts pervade the
scientific literature of conservation biology and
invasion ecology. These concepts are not
defined; generalizations based on them are not
tested. Indeed, if you try to prove that
invasive species harm natural environments,
you’ll find yourself in a scientific maze of dead
ends and circular logic. Throughout history,”
Sagoff continued, “anti-immigration activists
have supported their xenophobia with examples of
individual immigrants who depend on welfare or
commit crimes. Ecologists who seek public funds
to exclude or eradicate nonnative species
attribute to them the same disreputable qualities
that xenophobes have associated with
immigrants-for example, uncontrolled fecundity
and aggressive behavior.
“The pejorative stereotyping of newcomers
may be no more appropriate in the ecological than
in the social context,” Sagoff suggested,
citing a long list of examples.

The People’s Trust

Perhaps the most significant rethink of
conventional perspective on non-native species to
date was a 17-page report entitled The state of
Britain’s mammals: a focus on invasive species,
published in late 2010 by David Macdonald,
editor of The Encyclopedia of Mammals, and Dawn
Burnham, of Oxford University. The report was
the ninth in an annual series commissioned by
the People’s Trust for Endangered Species.
Macdonald and Burnham have long been on
record in favor of exterminating non-native
species to save endangered native animals–for
example, killing mink to keep them from eating
water voles and killing ruddy ducks lest they
hybridize with white-headed ducks. But they
appear to be reconsidering the dogma behind the
“The greatest devastation a non-native
species might wreak on native biodiversity is to
cause extinctions,” Macdonald and Burnham began.
“Fears of this possibility have been so
clamourously repeated in the conservation
literature that they have gained folkloric
acceptance in everyday life. Non-natives are
widely cited as the second greatest global threat
of species extinction (following habitat loss),
but this claim is exaggerated. The generality is
that most invasive species do not cause
extinctions, or even devastate native
biodiversity, but they do generally change
things, often in ways that conservationists
perceive as being not for the better, and which
are tricky to manage.
“There is an issue here about
‘naturalness’,” wrote Macdonald and Burnham,
“touching on a profound question of whether
people are part of Nature and, if not, when
they stopped being so. The vocabulary of
biological invasions blurs the technical and
day-to-day usages of similar words (e.g. exotic,
imported or alien), and can risk moralistic or
jingoistic nuances. Inconsistency and prejudice
are rife in media coverage of non-native
species–as is muddled thinking,” for example
“to consider the cost of eradicating a species as
part of the evidence that it is economically
Macdonald and Burnham avoided direct
confrontation with the conservation establishment
by suggesting that so long as a non-native
species demonstrably harms native biodiversity,
“efforts to remove it, or otherwise mitigate its
impact, are justified indefinitely.”
However, Macdonald and Burnham
acknowledged, “There comes a point where a
non-native has been exerting its influence on
native biodiversity for so long that a new
community has emerged, to which the intruder is
integral so that it fulfils a functional role in
the ecosystem.”
Then, “removal would no longer rescue or
restore the original natural stateŠAt that point
the intruder’s origins alone no longer justify
killing it. Indeed, and importantly,”
Macdonald and Burnham continued, “invasive
species have fitted in so many places,
increasing species diversity, that the notion
that natural communities are generally saturated
with species seems untenable, and furthermore,
there is no evidence that species-rich
environments are any more resistant to invasion
than species-poor ones.”

Suffering & cost/benefit

Further, Macdonald and Burnham stated,
“While conservationists, focusing on
populations, generally believe that welfare
considerations do not trump all others, the
suffering involved in removing a non-native is
surely a weighty factor in the cost-benefit
Concluded Macdonald and Burnham, “In the
context of non-natives, pragmatism might
advocate eradication where it is worthwhile [to
preserve endangered species] and feasible.”
However, they added, “Invoking their alien
status as justification for killing, even
persecuting, individuals in ways that offer no
prospect of limiting” the impact of their species
“is as tawdry in the context of non-natives as is
inflicting suffering and squandering resources in
any other context.”
Thus Macdonald and Burnham in baby steps
edged toward the heretical view that biodiversity
is best encouraged and defended by treating all
sentient species as if their individual lives
have moral value.
The idea that species can best be
protected by preventing harm to individuals was
the perspective of the humane community as long
ago as 1883, when a delegation of attendees at
the sixth annual conference of the American
Humane Association called upon then-U.S.
President Chester Arthur to urge him to ask
Congress to pass legislation to save the western
plains bison, in specific, as well as other
species who were being hunted to extinction.
This was among the earliest lobbying efforts on
behalf of endangered species in U.S. history.
Most of the other arguments against the
wholesale condemnation and extermination of
“invasive” species should also sound familiar to
readers of ANIMAL PEOPLE.
For example, ANIMAL PEOPLE in October
2007 explored “How adaptive species became
‘invasive’,” as hunter/conservationist
organizations experimented with the language of
mass-mailed appeals. After the terms “exotic
species” and “alien species” failed to kindle
with donors and armchair activists, “invasive
species” spread like Eurasian watermilfoil
following the terrorist attacks of September 11,
2001, and continued to gain momentum throughout
the past decade, parallel to rising political
concern about immigration from Mexico.

Time to stop the war

Before ANIMAL PEOPLE debuted, in
mid-1992, the ANIMAL PEOPLE team for six years
produced the long defunct Animals’ Agenda
magazine. In the March 1991 edition of Animals’
Agenda, citing James H. Brown, we pointed out
that “Except on small islands, where the effects
of feral animals and wild exotics are usually
ambiguous, introduced species over time tend to
help more native species than they harm, by
filling ecological niches that have not only been
left open by the extirpation of other species,
but are also essential to preventing the collapse
of whole ecosystems.
“In their zeal to annihilate feral and
wild exotic animals,” we argued, “wildlife
regulatory agencies often don’t give nature
credit for finding ways to accommodate new
species. Instead the agencies proceed on the
assumption that wild habitats are static
entitiesŠThe present wildlife management paradigm
further presumes that new species will not find
their own way into ecological niches where they
may in fact be needed. It presumes that the
‘natural’ habitats of 500 years ago could (and
should) be restored, if only feral and wild
exotic animals were exterminated…Finally, it
presumes that the activities of human beings are
not part of nature.
“The war against the largely imaginary
alien menace goes on,” we concluded, “both in
the name of ecology and in opposition to
ecological principle.”
Twenty years later, growing numbers of
conservationists who have a sincere concern for
animals, as well as a primary interest in the
abstract concept of species, are beginning to
question the wisdom of continuing the war. So
are some political leaders, seeking ways to cut
and balance budgets. The ulterior motives of
those who use “invasive species” rhetoric to
rationalize sport hunting or predator control
have never been more evident.
The time is right for the humane
community to exercise leadership–not just on
behalf of feral cats, mute swans, wild horses,
or other popular species–but on behalf of the
confluence of humane consideration for individual
animal life with the ecological principle that
every individual, of any species, contributes
positively to the evolutionary process.

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