The Cooler: Towards a Deeper Conversation on Invasive Species

The gray bird grasshopper is devastating a remote island's ecosystem. Or is it? Photo by Greg Hume.

The gray bird grasshopper is devastating a remote island’s ecosystem. Or is it? Photo by Greg Hume.

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

Last week’s “Good Read” on Conservation Magazine is a must-read for anyone who cares about invasive species issues. It’s the story of an introduced grasshopper running amok on a small island.

I know what you’re probably thinking: “How could that be a must read? I’ve already read that narrative dozens of times. Humans unintentionally or idiotically introduce a new species. It becomes a plague. Conservationists battle said invasive. End of story.”

Except that’s not the story here, not really. The University of Wyoming’s Jeffrey A. Lockwood and Alexandre V. Latchininsky present the topic with great complexity, one of the best pieces on our evolving understanding of invasive species.

For decades, “complex” would not be the word you’d use to describe the invasive species narrative. It went like this: Invasive species are bad. They devastate native species, habitats, economies. Conservationists should use every tool in their arsenal to prevent, control and destroy them. What more can you say?

Plenty, it turns out.

There has been a growing body of literature that demonstrates our relationship with invasive species is anything but simple. There are papers suggesting that some invasive threats may be overstated. There are books that seem to revel in our often schizophrenic approaches to non-native wildlife, from Courtney Humphries’ celebration of city pigeons, Superdove, to Anders Halverson’s conservation history  of rainbow trout introductions, An Entirely Synthetic Fish.  There are foodie enthusiasts who believe if you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em. There’s even a thriller involving the quirky folks on both sides of feral pig eradication, T.C. Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done.

Conservation Magazine has been promoting one of those pieces on the leading edge of this thinking, “Confessions of a Hit Man,” by Lockwood and Latchininsky. It was published a number of years ago but it remains just as relevant today. Maybe you missed it the first time around. Don’t make the same mistake again. It quite simply probes our tour relationship with invasive species — perhaps with all species — better than anything I’ve read.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Lockwood, an entomologist turned creative writing professor, is always interesting. His book Locust is a delight, a story of an astounding biological phenomenon that shaped the North American landscape–and history. But unlike, say, the great bison herds and passenger pigeon flocks, no one is lamenting the disappearance of locust plagues. He deftly combines biology, history, philosophy, religion and more.

The same depth of thought is evident in the Conservation Magazine essay. Lockwood and Latchininsky are self-described ecological hit men: they’re called in to take out swarms of grasshoppers that devastate agriculture and ecosystems. They’ve wracked up thousands of grasshopper deaths on five continents.

Recently, they were asked to ply their trade on the remote Hawaiian island of Nihoa, where the introduced  gray bird grasshopper (Schistocerca nitens) had begun showing up in plague proportions.

You might guess the two “hit men” might gleefully accept this worthy task without question. You’d be wrong. As they write:

“We’ve come to learn that sometimes good and evil are no so easily discerned in ecological systems, even when a place looks like Eden. And the more we looked, the less clear things became.”

They wonder: what exactly are we trying to restore? And why? Perhaps most surprisingly, they wonder if the gray bird grasshopper really got here due to humans. After all, new species are constantly showing up on and disappearing on island ecosystems, right?

“What if, after centuries of failed attempts, the gray bird grasshopper finally caught a favorable hurricane track from Mexico and made it to Hawaii, only to have humans assume that the poor bastard cheated by catching a free ride and deserved to be expunged? It’d be like legitimately dealing yourself a royal flush and getting kicked out of the game.” 

They note that an endangered bird species is thriving on the grasshopper diet, and that the grasshoppers themselves appear to be fitting into the island, with shorter flight distances—perhaps, they speculate, eventually leading to a flightless grasshopper.

There’s a lot more in this essay that I could quote—it’s full of passages that practically beg to be shared. But you should go read the whole thing. There’s a lot to to ponder, argue, discuss.

I recognize that many conservationists have an often Pavlovian negative reaction to these new narratives, to the merest suggestion that invasives are anything other than a scourge upon the earth.

To be clear: writers like Lockwood and Latchininsky are not against invasive species control. (In fact, their conclusion may well surprise you).

None of us want to see the last Galapagos tortoise egg be scarfed up by a herd of feral hogs. Only a fool would believe that moving around exotic mussels is good for anyone or anything. Personally, I grimace at every acre of beautiful, complex sagebrush habitat, with its attendant mule deer and sage grouse, that disappears due to the noxious annual weed cheatgrass—and I do anything I can as a conservationist to protect that native ecosystem.

Still, I recognize that many invasive species issues are based strongly on human values and desires. And anytime values and desires come into play, things can get a bit…messy. There’s a lot left to be said on invasive species. “Confessions of a Hit Man” and similar writings hopefully lead to a deeper, richer conversation.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
Matt Miller is a senior science writer for the Conservancy. He writes features and blogs about the conservation research being conducted by the Conservancy’s 550 scientists. Matt previously worked for nearly 11 years as director of communications for the Conservancy’s Idaho program. He has served on the national board of directors of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and has published widely on conservation, nature and outdoor sports. He has held two Coda fellowships, assisting conservation programs in Colombia and Micronesia. An avid naturalist and outdoorsman, Matt has traveled the world in search of wildlife and stories.

Comments: The Cooler: Towards a Deeper Conversation on Invasive Species

  •  Comment from Cat

    Great post Matt!

  •  Comment from Ken Miracle

    Thanks Matt

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