Spring 1999 Update

As invasive species threat intensifies, U.S. steps up fight

Since our article “Biological Invasions: A Growing Threat” appeared (Issues, Summer 1997), the assault by biological invaders on our nation’s ecosystems has intensified. Perhaps the single greatest new threat is the Asian long-horned beetle, which first appeared in Brooklyn, N.Y., in late 1996 and has since been discovered in smaller infestations on Long Island, N.Y., and in Chicago. Probably imported independently to the three sites in wooden packing crates from China, the beetle poses a multibillion-dollar threat to U.S. forests because of its extraordinarily wide host range. So far, thousands of trees have been cut down and burned in the infested areas, and a rigorous quarantine has been imposed to attempt to keep firewood and living trees from being transported outside these areas. Other potentially devastating new invaders abound. The South American fire ant, which has ravaged the southeast, has just reached California, where the state Department of Agriculture is trying to devise an eradication strategy. African ticks are arriving in the United States via the booming exotic reptile trade. These species are carriers of heartwater, a highly lethal disease in cattle, deer, sheep, and goats.

In the face of these and other threats, President Clinton signed an executive order on February 3, 1999, creating a new federal interagency Invasive Species Council charged with producing, within 18 months, a broad management plan to minimize the effects of invasive species, plus an advisory committee of stakeholders to provide expert input to the council. Additionally, all agencies have been ordered to ensure that their activities are maximally effective against invasive species. The executive order encourages interactions with states, municipalities, and private managers of land and water bodies, although it does not spell out specifically how such interactions should be initiated and organized.

The new council may be able to generate many of the actions we called for in our 1997 article. It should focus in particular on developing an overall national strategy to deal with plant and animal invasions, establishing strong management coordination on public lands, and focusing basic research on invasive species. Congress and the administration will need to provide the necessary wherewithal and staffing for the agencies to act quickly and effectively. The president’s FY 2000 budget includes an additional $29 million for projects to fight invasive species and restore ecosystems damaged by them.

Internationally, there is substantial activity aimed at fighting the invaders. The Rio Convention on Biodiversity recognized invasive species as a major threat to biodiversity and called for all signatories to attempt to prevent invaders from being exported or imported. Recently, major international environmental organizations, including the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, formed the Global Invasive Species Programme (GISP). Its goal is to take an interdisciplinary approach to prevention and management of invasive species and to establish a comprehensive international strategy to enact this approach. An expert consultation focusing on management of invasions and early warning was held in Kuala Lumpur in March 1999.

Because the United States has not signed the biodiversity convention, its role in influencing GISP policy and other activities stemming from the convention is uncertain. In addition, U.S. efforts to fight invasive species could be hurt by its recent rejection of the proposed Biosafety Protocol, which is aimed at regulating trade of genetically modified organisms. The protocol was endorsed by most nations, which, because they see the two issues as analogous, now may not be as willing to help the United States on invasive species. Further, countries with substantial economic stakes in large-scale international transport of species or goods that can carry such species (for example, those heavily invested in the cut flower and horticulture trade or the shipment of raw timber) may find it easier to thwart attempts to strengthen regulation.

Daniel Simberloff

Don C. Schmitz

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Cite this Article

Schmitz, Don C., and Daniel Simberloff. “Spring 1999 Update.” Issues in Science and Technology 15, no. 3 (Spring 1999).

Vol. XV, No. 3, Spring 1999