spraying herbicide from helicopters to restore native ecosystems
January 18, 2023 4:06 PM   Subscribe

Beyond the War on Invasive Species with Tao Orion. The reason we’ve been talking about pesticides because herbicides are such a big part of getting rid of “invasive” species… But your book tries to turn things on its head and to question the concept of whether we should be trying to eradicate them. "Invasive species don’t have special powers and aren’t inherently malignant. From an ecological perspective, they are exploiting available niches." Bonus: interview at the Permaculture Podcast.
posted by spamandkimchi (23 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
When I was learning how to build bluebird boxes for the dwindling population here in New Mexico, one of the steps was making the hole small enough so that sparrows couldn’t invade the box, kill the eggs and parents and take over. Some of the bluebird information I found, advocated drowning or strangling the invasive sparrows in all manner of traps.

I decided I would try and make the boxes sparrow-proof but I wasn’t going to kill other birds. And I realized that mankind is the most destructive invasive species there is.
posted by jabo at 5:17 PM on January 18 [5 favorites]

As a professional in this field, I would like to say that the post title "spraying herbicide from helicopters to restore native ecosystems" is a wildly inaccurate representation.

I'm not saying it's a lie, because I'm sure someone will link to the 0.01% of times that it's happened. So I guess it's 99.99% of a lie.
posted by B3taCatScan at 5:25 PM on January 18 [16 favorites]

I am a member of an invasive species.
posted by GoblinHoney at 5:34 PM on January 18 [2 favorites]

As a native garden hobbyist I've gotten away from the pre-colonial restoration ideal after starting from that position myself several years ago, but this person is mostly spouting a bunch of bougie nonsense (organicconsumers.org? hmm). The straw man with monsanto is fucking disgusting. To be less attack-y about it, the argument here simply comes from an anthropocentric stance centered on agriculture.

If their argument isn't centered on the needs of nature and returning a pretty good chunk of this planet's land away from our caloric needs to a complex (and thus robust) ecosystem with a similarly complex bottom to top food chain, then it's not an argument for why invasives are ok or preferable to natives.
posted by MillMan at 5:37 PM on January 18 [8 favorites]

Funny story. In the 90s we had a small koi pond on our property in the Jupiter, Florida area. Wanting to add some greenery to the pond for the fish to nibble on, for shade, and to help clean the water, I researched what would be Just The Thing and found out about water hyacinth, a really pretty plant that makes pretty bright green leaves pale pink flowers and grows quickly on the surface of the water, using air pockets in its stems to stay afloat.

I also learned that water hyacinth is an enormous problem in the canals of Florida, where it can in a matter of months completely cover over a whole canal, fouling management boats and jamming dams and water control machinery.

I figured it would be pretty easy to find some, if it was that much of a big deal, by going out to one of our local canals and looking around. I didn't find any until I got to US 441, a big highway on the edge of the everglades southeast of the lake, where on one of the roadside canals there was a bunch of it growing, so I pulled over to snag a small handful into a baggie to take home.

Literally not five minutes later a plain brown K-car pulled up behind me and an average guy climbed out and asked me what I was doing. I explained, and said I knew water hyacinth was an invasive species, that my pond was for sure not connected to anything, it was just a couple hundred gallons on my front porch, and my fish were getting too hot, and he said, if I wanted to, I could give you a ticket, because I'm a ranger, and what you want to do -- spreading water hyacynth -- is extremely illegal. But I'm not going to do that, because you're not going to put that baggie in your car, you're going to dump it out right here, and then I'm going to drive away, and I hope you've learned something.

I dumped out my baggie, and he drove away, and ten minutes later, I grabbed some more water hyacinth and put it into the baggie and drove home and made my fish happy.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:46 PM on January 18 [4 favorites]

Lots of thoughts about this, I'll try to make this coherent.

I'll start with this: I could see right off the bat that in every case where invasive species were thriving, there were other things going on in the ecosystem that pesticides weren’t going to address. You can't just say there are other things going on, you need to say what those things are. I know the interviewee is trying to sell a book, but you can't just say 'things are complicated'.

A specific problem with invasive plants is that they crowd out the plants birds need to survive. You need to support a certain amount of insects if you want to keep a lot of your favorite song birds around. Invasive plants simply don't have as many things eating them, which is part of why they're successful. Then there are plants that are actively harmful to native plants like Nandina, a plant with cyanide containing berries.

Things I wish the articles had addressed: are these efforts to remove invasives successful? Can we calculate the benefit to restoring a larger area with native plants vs letting invasives stay?

Let's not forget the previous discussion where the article discussed the disappearance of native bees.

seanmpuckett this is exactly part of the problem, selfish people deciding that their having something pretty in their yard is more important than containing a problem. Frankly it seems akin to holding a 'pox party' and risking spreading a disease based on false ideas about immunity. The natural world does not stop at your backyard.
posted by ockmockbock at 6:05 PM on January 18 [18 favorites]

I'm an environmental planner by trade and have to deal with the question of invasive species regularly. Casting the blame on the species themselves is a common mistake people make, especially well-intentioned and under-informed volunteers who think they're doing the equivalent of a litter clean up. No ecologist worth their salt, however, neglects to consider the reasons why a species is in a specific place at a specific time. The claim that this is an outsider perspective doesn't carry water. It seems more contrived to sell books than based in professional experience. Likewise with pillorying Monsanto—not because the company or its industry are at all virtuous, but because this take obfuscates the work of intelligent, caring scientists whose work points to the very solutions the author is seeking. I agree wholeheartedly with problematizing the invasive species concept, and with the decolonial approach that is espoused in the articles, but I feel these positions are weakened by the desire to be seen as a contrarian and iconoclast.
posted by criticalyeast at 6:08 PM on January 18 [5 favorites]

If you think my usage -- implicitly endorsed by the ranger (did you catch that bit) -- of water hyacinth is is like having a pox party, you may wish to review what a pox party is. Because I'm pretty sure putting water hyacinth into a tiny closed ecosystem hundreds of meters from any natural water feature doesn't count as a pox party. The point of my story is that invasive species are only invasive where they are not wanted. Which is kind of like the point of the original post.

posted by seanmpuckett at 6:21 PM on January 18 [2 favorites]

So this topic is outside my prof/ed experience. I am uncertain.

Is any species native to the combination of syntheticsl chemicals, heavy metals and excess carbon dioxide we have put into the air and water and soil? Is any species native to the new shifting normal, previously extreme weather patterns, and while the day-length doesn't change the climate zones do, are the new combinations suited to any species?
I assume generalist organisms do well in these conditions, maybe. As do introduced species that have broken from ecosystem containment.

On the other hand, the accidental and intentional introduction of species has cause a lot of harm to the other species in an ecosystem, a competive advantage turns into population dominance and exclusion of other species .

Our ecosystems are having a hard enough time dealing with the chemical and physical destruction that high consuming and high tech and large numbers of humans are wreaking, so maybe adding this bioloical challenge to wounded and poisoned ecosystems is a bad idea.

Lastly, have any methods of eradication worked? Our noxious weed board issues tickets, but purple loustrife and scotch broom and bind weed are not defeatable unless you pave paradise and put up a parking lot.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 7:02 PM on January 18

Side note: W. Hyacinth can spread by bird ingested seeds and by plant fragments like when animals take plant parts for non nutritional purposes like nests. SteamPlunker was your pond caged?

But we shouldn't single you out for sharing your story, because the W. Hyacinth isn't the story of one person in florida causing the problem or capable of solving it. Like Coronavirus, climate change or nuclear tech et - this globle-spanning technilogical civilization can't get compliance, safety and or regulation sufficient to not murder-suicide ourselves and our cohort of companion species.

The weeds will inherit the earth. Especially bind-weed.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 7:09 PM on January 18 [8 favorites]

Sean M Puckett, my apologies, English was my firsr language but I am increasingly terrible at it. I blame the starlings and shakespeare.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 7:14 PM on January 18 [1 favorite]

A lot of people involved in these contexts are really highly trained ecologists and it’s still hard for me to square that with the belief that herbicides, pesticides are the only solution.

Broadly speaking, this mischaracterizes the field very badly. (Individually there are certainly people who fit this description.) People are fully aware of the point the author keeps making in the interviews, that degraded ecosystems provide additional opportunities for invasives. And people are aware of and use other tools, like herds of goats, manual removal, and fire. The thing is, though, that (fire aside) those don't tend to scale up well, so especially if you are trying to affect more acres, or work in settings that are less conducive to other methods, people end up back with herbicides.

Personally, I think most of the vegetation management approaches to invasives are a waste of time. The ship has sailed and isn't coming back. But, as part of a careful plan to give other plants (e.g., natives that provide additional ecosystem benefits in the local context) a chance until they can become established, it makes a lot of sense, and spraying is one of the few effective tools available.

Having read all of the linked interviews, I think the author is mischaracterizing the professional field they are writing about, mischaracterize invasives as being only an outcome of degraded ecologies, and don't seem to be offering better solutions (though perhaps that is in their book).
posted by Dip Flash at 7:31 PM on January 18 [4 favorites]

We have an invasive grass, buffelgrass, in the desert. The story I’ve heard is that it was introduced by cattle ranchers who wanted more grass for the cows to graze on. It grows extremely fast when it gets a little water, it spreads easily (I cannot keep that damn stuff out of the yards) and if it burns it comes back even stronger.

That last point is important. Buffelgrass burns very well when it’s dry. The big problem with that is fire is not a part of the Sonoran desert ecosystem. Most plants have no defense against fire. Saguaro cacti do not need to take much of a burn at all to kill the entire plant. Same with Palo Verde trees, and other native plants as well. Fire is part of many ecosystems, especially forests, but it isn’t part of the desert. Buffelgrass is changing that, and it threatens large chunks of the desert. All you need is one lightning strike in an area of buffelgrass and look out.
posted by azpenguin at 8:34 PM on January 18 [6 favorites]

I joined the Green Army when I was 19yo.

The Green Army Program was a hands-on, practical environmental action program that supported local environment and heritage conservation projects across Australia. The Program delivered over 1,000 projects across Australia and engaged with over 11,000 young Australian’s as participants. The Green Army Program closed on 30 June 2018.

Our project was to destroy 7 acres of lantana.

This species is actively managed by community groups in Queensland and New South Wales, and was recently ranked as the most serious enviromental weed in south-eastern Queensland.It is also listed in the Global Invasive Species Database (GISD) and is regarded to be in the top 100 of the world's worst invasive alien species.

We were a dozen young men with machetes, stripped to the waist under the sun. It took us two weeks. It was hard work, but nobody complained because we're all volunteers. You can go home. We joined the Green Army because we wanted to fight. We won too, we cleared the field.

Why did I join? Someone asked me to. They explained the situation and I said yes. Let's go. I was 19yo.

I was proud to be in the Green Army. I think if you give young men and women a challenge and a good reason, they'll volunteer. We were given a couple of trucks, machetes, spades, picks. It wasn't a big investment, we knew what to do with it and got it done.

What happened to the Green Army? Conservative government.
posted by adept256 at 9:00 PM on January 18 [5 favorites]

Well, instead of Green Army, they'll just get unemployed people receiving benefits and make them do work for dole - put them to work pulling weeds.

One of the craziest sites I've worked on was a Boneseed infestation site.

This crazy plant was introduced here from Africa - it's a large bush that grows to about the size of a small car and out-competes every other native plant, with infestations forming a monoculture - hectares of land consisting of only Boneseed and nothing else. It's the worst invasive weed in Australia.

A single plant produces about 50,000 seeds a year, which are dispersed by birds and insects. These seeds enter the soil and form a dormant seedbank, germinating when conditions are right. These seeds remain active for about 10 years, and are fire resistant, so they're the first to regrow after a fire.

The soil in infested zones contain 10,000-20,000 seeds per square meter. Every time you uproot a Boneseed plant, it disturbs the soil, triggering the germination of more seeds in the area, so for every one plant you kill you actually germinate 5-6 more.

Basically what you do is pull out all the Boneseed plants by hand before they flower and seed. Then come back and pull them out again in a few weeks.

Then you better repeat for 10 years without failing, otherwise if a single generation gets to flower and seed you start all over again.

I almost feel like saying, well, it's natural selection, these guys have clearly won... trying to fight against them is like pushing back the ocean.
posted by xdvesper at 10:55 PM on January 18 [6 favorites]

If you think my usage -- implicitly endorsed by the ranger (did you catch that bit) -- of water hyacinth is is like having a pox party, you may wish to review what a pox party is. Because I'm pretty sure putting water hyacinth into a tiny closed ecosystem hundreds of meters from any natural water feature doesn't count as a pox party.
I hate to break this to you but the ranger was absolutely not endorsing your usage, implicitly or otherwise. And also, yes what you did was pretty much exactly like a pox party. Evidently you are too ignorant to realize that water hyacinth self-pollinates. So, yeah unless you were taking steps to ensure that yours never blossomed (I bet you picked it partly for the flowers) your "hundreds of meters from any natural water" is absolutely not good enough.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 7:38 AM on January 19 [9 favorites]

If you think my usage -- implicitly endorsed by the ranger (did you catch that bit) -- of water hyacinth is is like having a pox party,

I dunno...completely ignorant of the science, oh-so-smug attitude towards educated authority and I'll Do What I Want attitude, I Did My Own Research as a justification and saying Screw You to everyone else to satisfy your own, selfish, personal wants. Sounds right out of the anti-vaxxer playbook to me. I'm waiting for you to claim having koi ponds and putting whatever the hell you want in them is an inalienable right of yours that anyone critical of you is infringing on to make it a perfect fit.
posted by kjs3 at 8:08 AM on January 19 [4 favorites]

I hate to break this to you but the ranger was absolutely not endorsing your usage, implicitly or otherwise.

That would really depend on tone of voice, which without being there is unclear. I've certainly had plenty of those kind of interactions with enforcement over the years where they tell you what you are doing is illegal, but then do an elaborate "Now, I'm going to drive away, and if you were to keep doing that I wouldn't know about it, but don't do it again and don't let me catch you" kind of dance. It's a thing that happens for sure, but it's also a thing that in the story shouldn't have happened, since spreading that plant into a fish pond is not risk free and is exactly how people routinely spread these plants.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:13 AM on January 19 [2 favorites]

Tau Orion is saying two different things. One is that nobody knows how or what to define as invasive, which then should make it her job to do so, and not just be her ammunition. The other is that most concern is overblown and there is a chemical conspiracy behind the worry, which raises flags. I think both sentiments can be dismantled pretty easily in the most severe cases of invasion, though not to dismiss both as a valid concern in many cases, because this is all about degrees of invasion and impacts on the economy and other species. County and state agents are often the first to respond to unwashed gravel that bring in an invasive species, so spraying is a sound idea in such a small area early in the containment. Then there are small mollusks that invade waterlines and requires drastic actions like watercraft ballast inspection and fines in order to avoid a total collapse of a fresh water distribution infrastructure. Saying that the sky isn't falling and we should naturally adapt to the change is premature as a prediction, and stating the obvious for not doing enough when enough could be done.

Thanks for this post, and hopefully many more like it.
posted by Brian B. at 9:36 AM on January 19 [2 favorites]

As with most things, I think this issue is complicated, and that any story that tries to make an unnecessary dichotomy is unfairly trying to make easy headlines. I also work in this field and manage a team that regularly uses herbicides for managing high quality natural areas. For nearly everyone who works in natural resources management, the answer is not either letting invasives run their course OR spraying every acre with herbicides. No one has the resources or capacity to work at that intensity over all of the acres of their stewardship responsibility. Instead, most ecologists choose their "battles" wisely. Yes, we use herbicide, but with nearly surgical precision, and only in the highest quality natural areas. We choose to manage invasives within the pockets of ecosystems where critical habitats remain, and we still have a fighting chance to restore or maintain them. In the vast majority of our other acres, where other disturbances or challenges have dramatically altered the landscape, we mostly choose to manage properties for other values (recreation, access, specific wildlife attributes, carbon sequestration, etc.). Herbicide-focused invasive species management is only one tool in a complicated matrix of conservation. It's often a good tool. But given its expense, hazards, and heavy labor needs, it's one that we only use where we think it will be the best option.
posted by hessie at 9:45 AM on January 19 [4 favorites]

I'm currently "fighting" with about five acres of glossy buckthorn in order to restore some critically important pollinator habitat in our region.
The kind lady from the conservation district told me - at the start - "the most important thing..."
I cut her off, "I know, keep the herbicide application visible, watch my proximity to that little stream, and just chop and drop the bushes..."

"No," she said. "The most important thing is that you try to start very small so that you don't get overwhelmed. I really don't want you burning out."

My six year old daughter calls the buckthorn "cheater plants" - she came up with this all on her own. Because they start growing earlier than all the other plants, they steal and sequester the water, and they attract songbirds but their seeds aren't good for the birds. "They don't follow the rules," she chides.

She's not wrong. But I contrast this with a hair-shirted doomer who was recently living on my compound for a couple of seasons. His position was that we should exercise the "Noah" option - gather every species of plant, bug, animal, rhizomes and fungi, germs and everything else - and distribute them evenly across the planet.
Forcing the evolutionary hand, so to speak, so that niches could get filled in a matter of centuries. A nuclear option.

I've read everything I can get my hands on about my preferred method of destroying the buckthorn (chop and blot with a roundup applicator, carefully). I'm excited about the use of some new "organic" metal suspensions and I support the researchers seeking something more cost effective than "five deep soil burns over the coarse of three years." I can't do deep controlled burns because they'll probably destroy the powerlines that crisscross the area.

I want to bring back the prickly ash, the elderberry, and the spicebush. I'll die before it's done. But articles like these are almost as bad as the "planting milkweed is useless" people.

Don't get burned out. Do your best. Don't let the bastards steal your joy. Do the best you can with what you have. Will it save the world?
I have no idea.
But it's literally all we can do. And that's the most the universe can ask from us, I suppose. Nobody on this website is more than minimally responsible for this planetary catastrophe - and it's worse than unhelpful to diminish the real work being done.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:56 AM on January 19 [10 favorites]

I am also a professional in this field, and I find that first article frustrating in its lack of context. Yes, pesticides are used when there is no other choice or the other choices are too expensive, but no one wants to use pesticides. Also, we are aware of the difficulty in defining an invasive species, and because there are so many of them, we choose the absolute worst ones to combat. Poison hemlock is spreading in my state, and it can sicken livestock and cause rashes and eye irritation in people. It grows in disturbed areas, like the sides of roads and overgrazed fields. The absolute best way to get rid of it is to mow it before it sets seed, and people do that. It works. However, a few patches may not be in mow-able spots, so spot-spraying would be a good idea or years of work could be lost in a single season.

One of my least favorite plants is mile-a-minute, a spiny vine that smothers trees on disturbed roadsides and whose seeds are spread by birds. I keep my land free of it by picking it out by hand (in heavy gloves) before it sets seed, and also by not disturbing my land. This is fine in an ideal world where everyone is a citizen scientist and has the time and energy, but that's not realistic.

I use native plants in my flower beds, which turns them into less disturbed land. I would never move a dangerous invasive like water hyacinth even though I am a careful person (I could die and my heirs might not be so well-informed as I), but no one is perfect. My mother saw some false bamboo on vacation and took some to plant at home, and Holy Smoke, it took 40 years to get rid of it. A nursery owner I know planted real bamboo to harvest as plant stakes, and Ye Gods, he will never do that again.

But you know what? Climate change is making invasive species out of everything. We should watch out for the worst ones, as always, but we're likely to lose most of the battles.
posted by acrasis at 5:35 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]

One of the craziest sites I've worked on was a Boneseed infestation site.

xdevesper Boneseed, it turns out, is from South Africa.

How strange it is. Because some of our worst invasive plants, like hakea and Port Jackson willow, are from Australia.

So we've swopped invasives.

azpenguin buffelgras is from South Africa as well.

And apparently our sour fig, and sierings are also highly invasive in other parts of the world.

Having been taught from childhood to view hakea and port Jackson as monster plants, it's so odd to know that other plants, some of which that I cultivate and nurture, are monsters in other parts of the world.
posted by Zumbador at 8:37 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]

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