U.S. losing war against invasive species

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, December 19, 2003 (ENS): Efforts by the U.S. government to stem the tide of harmful, nonnative invasive species are woefully inadequate, experts say, and this failure to combat the second largest threat to biodiversity is costing the nation some $137 billion annually and causing untold and irreversible ecological harm.

"You do not have to be a scientist to recognize the damage these invaders inflict on our farms, forests, fisheries, and human health," says Dr. David Lodge, an invasive species expert and professor of biology at the University of Notre Dame.

Lodge is one of 750 scientists and experts who have signed a letter urging the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration to move immediately to prevent the further introduction and spread of these biological invaders.

More than 100 citizens groups have signed an identical letter - the campaign has been spearheaded by the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species, a group of a dozen regional and national conservation organizations.

The flood of frustration with the government's failure to deal with invasive species comes 10 years after a landmark report on the problem by the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), an arm of the U.S. Congress.

The OTA report - "Harmful Non-Indigenous Species in the United States" - was the first comprehensive look at the scope of the problem, identifying gaps in federal and state laws and regulations.

But the government's response to the warnings in the OTA report have fallen far short of the mark - a failure reported to Congress this June by its investigative arm, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO).

The federal government's plan for dealing with invasive species "lacks a clear, long term desired outcome and quantifiable measures of performance," testified Barry Hill, director of Interior issues for the GAO's Office of Environment and Natural Resources.

The problem is a daunting one. Invasives enter the United States by a variety of pathways - insects arrive in wood packaging, plants are introduced through the nursery or aquarium trade and aquatic species slip into the country within the ballast water of ocean vessels.

Some 50,000 invasive species are estimated to have already arrived.

Many can not survive in the United States or settle in without disrupting natural ecosystems, but some are wreaking havoc.

The Interior Department estimates that up to 46 percent of threatened and endangered species owe their listing in whole or in part to the uncontrolled spread of invasive species.

Florida spends more than $45 million every year to battle invasives such as predatory catfish and Australian melaleuca but new problems continue to arise. The state's agricultural industry is estimated to lose some $180 each year because of invasive species.

Invasive weeds such as cheatgrass and knapweeds have settled on some 125 million acres of the American West.

And some 145 aquatic invasive species have found a new home in the Great Lakes - and at least nine harmful invaders have been discovered in the past decade. Many inland states are now struggling with rising populations of invaders, such as the zebra mussel, which can crowd out native species and dominate aquatic ecosystems.

The concern is not just for the economy or the nation's biodiversity - West Nile virus is the result of a foreign pathogen.

"Existing policy and sheer luck have brought us some successes so far - brown tree snakes have been kept out of Hawaii and citrus long-horned beetle infestations have been wiped out - but the constant stream of new invasions shows that this is not enough," said Dr. Gabriela Chavarria, policy director at the National Wildlife Federation.

"The bottom line is that we need to improve our policies so that 10 years from now, we report fewer failures like West Nile virus and more successes like the brown tree snake," Chavarria said.

The experts call on federal agencies to push forward with major research and education campaigns and to begin immediate screening of organisms for potential invasiveness before they are imported.

They ask Congress to immediately pass the National Aquatic Invasive Species Act, to fund programs to detect and respond to newly arriving non native species and to work with the White House to better coordinate the efforts of the federal government and establish a national center on invasive species.

The National Aquatic Invasive Species Act authorizes some $170 million a year to answer some of the funding shortfalls, outlines early detection monitoring and rapid response plans, and sets up a timeframe for ballast water standards.

But the bill is stuck in committee and federal agencies are not faring much better with their attempt to regulate ballast water - far and away the greatest source of invaders.

In September the Bush administration announced that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will not regulate ballast water discharges from ships and will leave the regulatory oversight to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Environmentalists are keen to have the EPA regulate ballast water discharges - the EPA estimates ships discharge 21 billion gallons of ballast water into U.S. waters each year.

Currently the Coast Guard only requires vessels in the Great Lakes and the Upper Hudson and St. Lawrence Rivers to carry out an open ocean exchange of ballast - a practice many acknowledge the practice does little to remove or kill invasive species.

Newly proposed regulations would extend that requirement to all vessels entering U.S. waters after operating beyond the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone.

The Bush administration has also touted an initiative to boost interagency coordination for the 23 federal agencies that have invasive species programs, but critics say action is long overdue.

Dr. Phyllis Windle of the Union for Concerned Scientists, says the Christmas season has brought yet another alien invader already causing an economic ripple - and threatening native species.

Nonnative wood boring beetles have been found in potpourri imported from India at stores in Florida, Massachusetts, North Carolina, West Virginia and New Jersey.

The species have decimated pine tree populations in India and are similar to the bark beetle that has ravaged forests in the western United States. The U.S. government has recalled the products in question but retailers have been importing the potpourri and scented pine cones since April

"This latest episode is further evidence that U.S. policy is still no match for the dangers we face," said Windle, senior scientist with UCS, an independent nonprofit alliance of more than 100,000 concerned citizens and scientists.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2003. All Rights Reserved.

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