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Refugees Without Legs: How Climate Change Leaves No Room For ‘Invasive Species’

Plant

In the Summer of 2012, I met a Shoshone Elder named Finisia Medrano. (The story of that meeting is told in “Postcard from Eastern Oregon: When Planting Food is Illegal). She has spent decades following the routes and practices of the ancient migratory “Hoop” of the Great Basin Native Americans, harvesting and cultivating wild food seasonally. In so doing, she has safeguarded vanishing knowledge and made invaluable observations of the ecosystems in an area spanning several states. Over that time she has witnessed the undeniable effects of Climate Change.

“Refugees without legs”: this is the phrase Finisia uses to describe the status of many species of native plants which were traditional staple foods for indigenous Americans that are now threatened in their current ecosystems by the effects of Climate Change. Temperature extremes, atypical rainfall patterns, and disturbances in seasonal patterns are all taking a tangible toll, disrupting cycles of sprout, flower, seed and root growth which had been stable for millenia. And at a rate that is fast and getting faster. Finisia insists that if these plants are going to survive – as viable species and as food sources – that they will need to be relocated to different areas, further north and/or to higher elevations, and that people will need to do the relocating. We, humans, have made them refugees, and we, humans, must be their legs so they can flee. The speed of Climate Change has already outpaced the ability of plants to migrate on their own as they might have in response to previous, more gradual shifts.

“Refugees without Legs”: This phrase, and its implicit call to action, has been rattling around in my head since I first heard Finisia use it. Indeed, humans have induced Climate Change, and I agree that with that culpability comes responsibility. Creatures are suffering who had no role in the destruction we are wreaking. If we are going to attempt to mitigate the change that has already occurred and try to prevent further change – as daunting as these tasks are – then what we must change first is our own minds; we need to adopt new ideas and practices, and discard those that have become irrelevant and counter-productive. One such idea and practice that we must now reject is that of so-called “Invasive Species”.

What is an “invasive species”?

The word, “invasive”, whether pinned to an animal, plant, algae, etc., has a deceptively simple ring to it, but it is actually quite ambiguous. First, it is not, and never has been, a scientific term with a set definition.

Colloquially, it is tossed around quite loosely. For example, many gardeners call any plant that thrives and spreads with little or no care “invasive”, casting the term alike on “weeds” (including native plants) and on vegetables or nursery plants they set out intentionally but that grew outside their apportioned area. In these cases, the label “invasive” is pointedly disparaging and capricious to boot. Indeed, the villainy implied by the word sees to have a perverse appeal to some people. It has often struck me, after living in the Portland, Oregon, area for over a decade, that West Coast secularists love to hate invasives because it gives them a good/evil dichotomy to sink their teeth into in the absence of traditional religious fundamentalism in their lives. These are people who claim to care, but their own egos are throwing up a blockade to meaningful action.

In scientific circles, according to Wikipedia, “invasive” most often refers to “introduced species (also called ‘non-indigenous’ or ‘non-native’) that adversely affect the habitats and bioregions they invade economically, environmentally, and/or ecologically”. “Adversely” is the key word here; efforts to eradicate invasives from an area are justified by the alleged effects that the introduced species has or threatens to have. Also note that “introduced” means “introduced by human activity”. For example, rats introduced to an atoll by ship-borne explorers are invasive. By contrast, birds, coconuts, or starfish that begin inhabiting a new island that emerges from the sea are not.

Further muddying the picture, the term “noxious weeds” is often used interchangeably with “invasive species”. “Noxious weed” is a popular term with state and county agencies dedicated to supporting the moneyed interests of conventional farming and/or ranching. Thus, St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum) is “noxious” because it can cause phototoxicity in sheep; Chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris) because it might carry a rust fungus that can affect cultivated carrot crops; and woolly adelgid because it inflicts damage on Christmas tree farms. Note that in all three cases the plant or animal species needing protection from the noxious weed are themselves not native, and are products of a system – industrial agriculture – that is severely detrimental to the habitats and bioregions it has invaded. Despite recent glosses of “sustainability” applied by adherents of “noxious weed” theory, the focus of “noxious weed” management has been on economics, not environment or ecology.

Indeed, farming and ranching have destroyed far, far more acres of native ecosystems than cities. “Suburban sprawl”, a bugaboo of so many city liberals, affects a much, much smaller footprint than the cows that provide their beloved “free range” beef. In Eastern Oregon, Finisia brought us to a meadow on federal public land where cattle-grazing had, that very year, wiped out an acres-large patch of Camas, a native food crop. This was only the latest strike in an ecocide/genocide started by the Spanish missionaries who first brought cows to California in the 1500s. Ironically, the herd had been brought into this particular area as part of a nominally conservationist program that moves cattle around to decrease the effects of grazing. In this case, they were set loose on Camas fields in the spring, when the newly emerging shoots were at their most vulnerable. The trampled plants never flowered and set seed that year. The cows were then moved to another parcel to stamp out and chomp down whatever was growing there.

Perversely, the widespread, non-native beneficiaries of the decimation of native ecosystem from the Atlantic to Pacific are not called “invasive”: The massive monocrops of corn and soy that replaced the prairies of the Midwest; the famous “fall colors” of New England, which are produced by numerous introduced tree species that filled in after the clear-cutting of the native forest; the stream-muddying, soil-compacting, over-grazing cattle of the West. Agricultural animals and plants are exempted from the dread label of “invasive”, as is – and no one wants to go here! – residential lawn grass.

Speaking of places no one wants to go, the spread of “invasives” is a symptom of ecosystem fragmentation by human activity, and that fragmentation was the inevitable by-product of the Private Property system ennobled by Western culture and promulgated in its laws. Talk of changing this system is dismissed in all quarters, across the political spectrum. We sowed “invasives” and now we blame them and insist on their eradication, but we avoid like the plague addressing the central cause: our own greed.

“Invasive species” management

Invasive species theory has spawned a proliferation of laws, methodologies and organizations, many of them presenting themselves as ecologically concerned. Tragically, herbicides including glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s notorious “Round-up”) have been liberally applied in the cause of eradicating invasive plants, to the great detriment of native flora and fauna. Finisia has brought specimens of spray-killed native plants to the responsible government agencies, along with her observations that the “invasives” survived, but to no avail. My farming partner, who earned a degree in Environmental Science with a Minor in Botany, left her employment in the Restoration field after a few years out of disgust for the widespread use of chemical killers on “invasives”. “Invasives”, being the hardy, adaptable pioneer species that they are, can often more easily adapt to poisoning than natives. Pigweed Amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri) has famously become Round-up resistance across the Midwest.

That wielders of poison are called “conservationists” exemplifies the 1984-esque doublespeak that insidiously pervades our social discourse. That the dirty little secret of Restoration and invasive species management is very low rates of success that are inflated in official reports to keep the grant money flowing illustrates the customary application of rampant lying in the institutional world, non-profit and otherwise. That an urban home-owner, surrounded by miles and miles of deforested, drained, paved-over land has the temerity to get huffy over the “invasive” dandelion in their non-native lawn demonstrates the cavalier cluelessness of the U.S.A.’s haughtily ignorant population. The dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis), by the way, is “cosmopolitan in distribution”, meaning it is native throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Whether the claimed concern is the preservation/restoration of native ecosystems, or the protection of agricultural industries, the war on invasive species has depended on the assumption that, notwithstanding annual variations and the occasional “Act of God”, the planet’s climate is inherently stable and reliably predictable. Climate Change is changing all that, and not gently.

The Climate Change trump card

As Finisia has observed, wild stands of native food plants that had managed to avoid extinction from logging, farming, mining and ranching are now dying out because of Climate Change (which was brought about in part by those very practices). The removal of cattle (and of the grain fields, pesticides, dams, and squandering of water that attend them) would have been a giant step toward restoration of abused territory, but would now no longer be enough. With the climate turning against native ecosystems, no efforts will be able to save them as they were, in the places they are now. That is, it has become impossible to restore the land to the state in which the Europeans found it.

For example, fire has been a natural part of the ecology of forests in the American West for thousands of years. Some plants are actually fire-dependent, with seeds that won’t germinate until after a fire. Fire-supression efforts by humans have impeded these natural processes, and have contributed to the deterioration of vast tracts of formerly lush forest lands. Now, the fires of recent years, magnified by Climate Change, are burning hotter, over larger areas, and exhibiting new and unexpected behaviors. In their wake, injured seed banks are awakening to conditions that are different than the ones that previously shaped their evolution. Case in point: Climate Change is extending the range of insect pests, including the Bark Beetle, which is wreaking havoc in the already assailed conifer forests of Colorado and California. How long until it reaches Oregon and Idaho? Alberta and British Columbia? What chance for survival is there for any new seedlings that sprouts in these areas? We can not expect the cycle of natural recovery to function like it did before. It is no longer possible. The larger question has now become: Will forests even be able to continue growing in the West?

Some “invasives” are providing benefit during Climate Change, at least this early step of it. Holly, for example, is another “invasive” in the Pacific Northwest, where it is grown commercially for national distribution during the Christmas season. This Summer, I farmed on a piece of land that had a small abandoned Holly orchard. My farming partner and I observed many, many birds nesting in the derelict trees. Holly makes for excellent nesting habitat because its waxy foliage is evergreen, providing cover in the winter, and jaggedly pointy, discouraging predators. Our favorite birds were the hummingbirds that whizzed back and forth between the orchard and our garden, which was full of flowering plants being grown out for our vegetable and herb seed business. We noticed, too, that during a hard freeze in late Winter, robins flocked to the orchard to feast on the berries because the ground was too frozen for them to dig for their usual staple, worms. At that time of year, no native berries remained. That same season, I read in the Rodale Organic magazine that robins are showing up 300 miles farther north than previously seen, a shift that was attributed to Climate Change. After that, I saw the Holly orchard as a haven, awaiting other winged refugees who will be driven here over time.

When I was an urban farmer in Portland, I was once lectured by a neighbor about the Holly tree in the front yard of a plot I was gardening. “It’s invasive,” she hissed, with a vitriol that I wish was more often applied to deserving targets such as Monsanto, British Petroleum, or the New York Times. Confounded, I regarded this tree – this single plant – and though I could not discern its evil, I was also unable to articulate a response. Some time later, I found myself in a debate about “invasives” with a group of Permacultists, and when I expressed my strong distaste for the word, I was rebuffed by one of them with, “Well we have to call them something”. This brought laughter to the people there, who seemed to feel she had won the argument.

Since then, I discovered that an excellent alternative has been offered: “A neutral terminology to define ‘invasive’ species”, by Robert I. Colautti and Hugh J. MacIsaac, published by the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor in Ontario. Leave it to Canadians to be more nuanced than their southern neighbors! Colautti and MacIsaac observed that “the use of simple terms to articulate ecological concepts can confuse ideological debates and undermine management efforts” and that “subconscious associations with preconceived terms, particularly emotive ones, can also lead to divergent interpretations and a confusion of concepts and theory”. No kidding! In place of a single word such as “invasive”, Colautti and MacIsaac put forward a system that is biogeographical (place-based) rather then taxonomic (species-based). The system describes possible stages of a new species entering an area. As summarized on Wikipedia, these stages are: I. Traveling, II. Introduced, III. Localized and numerically rare, IVa. Widespread but rare, IVb. Localized but dominant, V. Widespread and dominant. The single Holly tree in the front yard in Portland was at stage III: “Localized and numerically rare”. Corn in the Midwest, European trees in New England, and cattle in Eastern Oregon, by contrast, are at stage V: “Widespread and dominant”. This system can also be used to describe native plants. The conifers being decimated by Bark Beetles are passing from stage V. to stage IVa; from “Widespread and dominant” to “Widespread but rare”, and could soon be at stage III: “Localized and numerically rare”.

Put in these terms, if we follow Finisia’s advice about Climate Change’s “refugees without legs”, we humans must be the means for many species to enter stages I and II: “Traveling” and “Introduced”, with the goal of their becoming less “rare”. On the other hand, if we continue down the traditional road of Restoration and “invasive species management” – with or without pesticides – we run the risk of speeding ecosystem destruction, as fewer and fewer native species will survive as either “widespread” or “dominant”, and nothing will remain except abuse-resistant “invasives”. I shudder when I picture such a desolate landscape.

Certainly, the human introduction of species to new areas has had dramatic effects on native ecosystems in many cases. Witness the spread of Kudzu in the American South, the Cane Toad in Australia, or Zebra Mussels in the Great Lakes, all to the detriment of native species. I have empathy for the people who are concerned about “invasives” because they have a loving appreciation for native flora and fauna. I, too, am saddened to see plants and animals disappear. With each species that goes extinct, something inside each of us also dies. The loss of diversity without makes us more homogeneous within. This is something I personally feel.

Yet pinning the blame on the “invasives” and opening fire on them is no longer a realistic option. Not to say it ever was. Most models of Restoration or Conservation in the 20th & 21st Centuries were flawed at their foundations. The principle seems to have been Set-It-Aside-And-Don’t-Touch-It-Until-It-Returns-To-Eden, but this precept ignores the vital role played historically by humans – the Native Americans – in cooperation with “all our relations” in the dynamic equilibrium that existed before 1492.

Finisia’s words are rooted in a wisdom that precedes the very real invasion of that year, and as such are a good place to start. Any meaningful response to Climate Change requires a complete rejection of the fetishistic, demonizing treatment of life indulged in by the ensconced conquering class, as embodied in the term, “invasive species”.

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