Monday, January 11, 2010

I guess you can't be right all the time

I think I've shown that I'm a fan of Nathan Winograd. I've purchased his book, I've drunk his coolaid. I am, you could say, on board, with his no-kill message.

But whoo boy am I pissed about his recent blog post.

He argues that there's no such thing as an "invasive species". Or rather, that it's unfair to use that label because... I dunno, ecosystems change over time or something. Trying to follow his logic makes my head hurt. I also realize I must not have read this section of his book very carefully the first time around because I thought he was speaking only about feral cats. Apparently he was much more broad in scope.

Specifically, he quotes "The Bugman" a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. He's anwering a letter about Light Brown Apple Moth in California. He apparently thinks that it's mean to discriminate against the poor moth just because it's a pest that attacks many types of food crops.

Because of my job, I've done quite a bit of research into the Light Brown Apple Moth "situation" that happened in California. I think I could be considered an expert in this area.

The end of the Bugman's quote is most telling: "...When we start using pesticides to control the “invasive” species, we are going to affect everything living in that ecosystem, including our own species. We found that out when they started spraying those chemicals to control the light brown apple moth. Many people complained of adverse health effects."

What happened was that "some" (see, I can use qualitative statements too) hysterical, rich people were pissed that someone dared to apply a pesticide near their homes (it's OK when it's applied near other people's homes) and made claims of (mostly mild) health effects. Now, the state didn't handle the situation very well, (in fact, minus a sex scandal or something, it's hard to imagine how they could have handled it worse). It was a PR nightmare. But I am highly skeptical of the "adverse health effects" reported after the application.

The product used was a moth pheromone, one of the many natural chemicals floating around in the air that we breathe every day. Practically non-toxic for people. It's certainly less toxic than most of the pesticides allowed in organic agriculture. The amount of chemical that the "victims" would have been exposed to would have been less than what they get from stuffing their yuppie faces with organic veggie burgers every day. Or, yanno, from breathing city air. Or swallowing pool water from the gym, or... OK, you get the picture.

Bugman is also very cute in the way he words that paragraph. When we start using pesticides? Humans have been using chemicals to control pests for thousands of years. Pests, a word that I bet Winograd and Bugman don't like either, is a creature that we discriminate against because it competes with us for food. It's not arbitrary. It has nothing to do with freakin' Nazi Germany (I cannot believe he invoked Godwin's Law).

I must just be cranky because I'm clearly one of those "hyperbolic, hysterical “invasion biology” crowd". I used to work for the botany department for the Forest Service. I drove around the national forest documenting and controlling invasive plant species (through non-chemical means. We barely had the budget for one intern, let alone chemicals).

My boss was a botanist. A smart, gentle woman who loved plants and cared deeply about the ecosystems she was a steward of. I'll admit it bothers me a lot to read Wingrad denigrating the work she did because ... it was futile? Because she had no right to discriminate between plants? That she had no right to try to save unique species and ecosystems that would be over run by species that humans introduced? I'm using question marks here because I really don't think he's thought this through very far. To say in the same breath that pesticides are bad, but allowing human-introduced invasive species to kill other species is illogical. Hyperbolic, even.

A diversity of species is important for robust ecosystems. If we do nothing to stop invasives, than we'll end up with a monoculture landscape made up of few species (except in the Southern US, where it will be a single, solid wall of kudzu). Sure, in a few million years many new species will have evolved to fill the gaps left by the human-caused mass extinction. (Natural selection is likely at work as we speak; I've personally witnessed a deer eating English ivy. I hope she passed on her genes). But just like with global warming, the idea is to slow the destruction we humans are causing now. Also preserving human quality of life in the process.

Global warming deniers use the same arguments, in fact. The earth has gone through events like this before, why worry or do anything about it now? There's nothing we can do about it anyway, let the invasives spread and take over all they want, the environment will adapt eventually. Let them cut down the entire amazon rain forest, the environment will adapt eventually. Let us burn fossil fuels all we want, the environment will adapt eventually. Bullshit.

Not all species are equal. I'm going to discriminate against the aphids eating my tomato. I'm also going to kill the fleas on my dog and the weeds in my garden. Why is this so hard to understand?

I can't believe that an animal advocate would throw sand in the face of the same scientists who are fighting to control cain toads in Australia, pigs in Hawaii, mongoose in Jamaica.

Maybe Winograd thinks that if he defends one non-native species (feral cats), he has to defend them all. C'mon, Nathan. A colony of feral cats in an urban park is far different from pigs in Hawaii, or kudzu in the southern U.S, or English ivy in Oregon. Even a hysterical biologist can see that.

It is in fact OK to say that feral cats aren't the scourges of nature that some want to make them out to be, and still think that it's a good thing to not allow rats to kill all the birds in Hawaii.


Robert Dolezal said...

Outstanding post. Repeating misinformation (as Bugman and Winograd do, from tainted sources) is an outrage.

Retrieverman said...

Feral cats are bad-- but coyotes take care of that problem in rural areas. If I had a cat, it would be in the house all the time. I don't think cats belong outside unless you have a silo or granary. But I'd be more likely to get a ferret. They are far better rat control-- their droppings do the job.

The problem with this argument is that it will reduce biodiversity. Only a relative few species can have a global reach, and only a few can live with all of our contrivances. If we just introduce all of our attached (domesticated and otherwise), they will take over the world, and we'll be looking at a monoculture.

But there is some good news: the cold weather that has hit Florida may curb the continued expansion of Burmese pythons in the Everglades.

I'm not going to defend feral cats or horses or the dogs that are killing cassowaries and wallabies in Australia:

And you can't say I hate dogs.

With cats, well, they are okay as dog substitutes. I'd have a ferret before I'd take a cat. But I am partial to the Siamese breeds. They look at you when you talk to them!

Retrieverman said...

I've been following this debate about this particular moth in California for a while.

It seems that there are community activists in the Bay Area don't want clouds of pesticide dumped near them.

They do have a point.

So this may be one of those cases where we have to balance interests.

BTW, I saw my first mongoose in Hawaii. I thought it was a squirrel until my brain registered what it was.

Retrieverman said...

I certainly hope he's not one of these people who complains when a state or federal wildlife agency shoots feral goats that are on islands.

On the Aleutians, some Arctic foxes were introduced to islands. The sea otter populations were starting to dwindle, and they wanted to give fur trappers something else to trap for money. The Aleutians were known for their sea bird colonies-- many different species of auk were among the birds that nested there. The birds came there because there were no predators in residence. When the foxes discovered they could eat the birds with abandon, the population of sea birds dropped. They didn't necessarily leave the islands. There were enough around for the foxes to eat, but the vast colonies that once nested there were no more. The guano that fertilized the islands and made them verdant with vegetation began to disappear. The islands weren't green at all.

Over the past 40 years, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has trapped and destroyed whole populations of the foxes on Aleutians. The birds have returned. The guano now flows, and the plants are growing again.

I don't know how anyone with any knowledge about animals can say that there are no invasion species and then call us defenders of biodiversity biological xenophobes.

It doesn't even have to be a predator that causes this sort of trouble. In Newfoundland, the introduction of the snowshoe hare in the 1860's didn't seem to be much of a problem. They were meant to be a food source for hungry islanders. Their numbers shot way up over a period of about 50 years. Native Arctic hares began to disappear, but no one seemed to know why.

Then, the snowshoe population crashed, which is what happens when these populations reach their carrying capacity. And shortly after that, the caribou numbers began to dwindle.

The caribou of Newfoundland had never really experienced much in the way of boom and bust cycles that other populations experienced. However, they did notice that most of the caribou that were dying were calves. And virtually all the calves had these two marks on their necks, which were all infected with the same bacteria.

It took decades to figure out what happened, but when they figured it out, all of these things made sense.

When the snowshoe hare was introduced, it was a boon to an animal that relies exclusively on it for survival on the mainland. The Canada lynx on the mainland is a snowshoe hare specialist. Its numbers closely track those of the hare. On Newfoundland, lynx numbers had always been low. They had to become generalists on the island, and they just weren't able to survive. When the snowshoes arrived, their numbers also shot way up.

And then, when their numbers crashed, the lynx didn't have enough suitable prey, so they began to hunt Arctic hares. Arctic hares are limited in how far south they can live in North America by lynx predation. They are very vulnerable to lynxes. That's the reason why their numbers crashed as soon as the snowshoe hare numbers began to increase.

Then, when the snowshoe hare population crashed, the lynxes had no food at all. No hares to speak of, so they began to prey on the caribou calves. Now, Canada lynx can kill large prey, but they aren't as good at it as bobcats and Eurasian lynx are. Often, they would bite the calves on the throat only to have their mothers drive the predators off. However, the lynx were carrying a bacteria that infected the young caribou calves, which killed them or weakened them so much that they died from exposure.

And all of this happened because they turned out one species of hare onto the island decades before.

CyborgSuzy said...

In response to your 2nd comment Retreiverman, that's a bit like saying, "it seems there is a pregnant woman who is a heavy smoker and drinker who is worried about the effect of her neighbor's loud music on her developing child."

She "has a point" in the sense that yes, in theory, loud sounds could be a small risk to her fetus. But it's a drop in the bucket, of very low priority, when she's exposing it to much larger, well known risks.

It's the CDFA's fault for handling the PR side of things so poorly, but still, the response to the spraying was blown way out of proportion to the actual health risk of the pesticide. In any other situation (or place), they would be
praised for choosing the least-toxic way to control a pest.

CyborgSuzy said...

Winograd does have a small point in that SOME biologists over-react to all non-native species. But few of us consider the terms "non-native" and "invasive" interchangeable. Invasive species aren't being discriminated against because they're non-native, they're being discriminated against because they cause some type of damage. Sometimes massive damage.

In cases where the non-native isn't causing too much harm, then it is OK to leave it alone. It's pointless to waste resources on controlling this type of non-native, and very few biologists would say otherwise.

Anonymous said...


I live in Santa Cruz County and recently heard a professor speak.

In my approximate representation of what he researched:

1. Because of his involvement with investigating LBAM, he has spoken to over 200 non-hysterical people that feel they got sick from the LBAM spray and many of them still have symptoms they have not yet been able to cure. All of these people's symptoms came on immediately after the aerial spray and they had no such symptoms prior.

2. Over 600 people made written illness reports after the spray. With a few exceptions, most all of them are decent reasonable hard working people. And the number of reports is tremendous because these people took the initiative to find a place to report and how to report when there was no place or routine set up to report by the state agency that did the spraying (California Department of Food and Agriculture).

The professor estimated that between 30,000 and 70,000 people got ill to some extent from the spray, as most people don't report such things for many reasons. Many didn't even know they were sprayed. Many don't trust the government and don't want to share things with them. It was a project to find a place that would accept an illness report and few people, particularly when they are feeling sick or they are caring for someone in their family, have the ability and energy to undertake the project of writing an illness report and finding a place to accept a report.

3. The EPA has since changed the status of the synthetic pheromone pesticide blend that was sprayed and it is now illegal across the entire United States to apply what was applied on Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties.

I too often feel that weirdoes and spoiled rich people get too much publicity in the big picture. But living here, anytime you are with a gathering of people and this LBAM subject comes up, invariably you find people who were harmed by the spray. And typically they won't talk about it until someone else has admitted that they got ill because people are very hesitant to let others know.

I understand the previous comments, but in this case people and children and lots of them really took a beating from the aerial spray, they really did. And that was from one spray. There would have been over a dozen similar sprays by now had not a bunch of non-hysterical decent people, including many qualified scientists, doctors, professors, farmers, business owners and elected representatives stepped up and stopped it in the courts by forcing the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to follow the law.

And to put a finish on this: The EIR recently released by the CDFA (which CDFA was forced to do by the courts) admits clearly "no crop damage" in California from the Light Brown Apple moth. That is quite an admission after so many false reports that CDFA previously delivered to the media over many years.

CyborgSuzy said...

Anon, I'm sure many of the reports were sincere. That doesn't mean that the pesticide actually caused their health effects. To date, not a single adverse effect has been confirmed or linked to the pesticide. Products similar or identical to Checkmate have been used since at least 1987 for other species of moth. This includes thousands of pheromone ribbons and traps that were releasing the same pesticide into the air nearby people's home for months and years before this incident, in the same areas that were later aerially sprayed. It's a little suspicious that no health effects were reported until a high profile application. It's also suspicious that a number of them are from people who were miles away and/or indoors at the time of application.

It's true that no one knows how long LBAM has been in California, but it was only confirmed in 2007. It's a known crop pest, it hadn't yet established. It was very appropriate for the state to aggressively treat it as soon as it was confirmed. In fact, if they hadn't, they probably would have gotten backlash from the public! The point is to treat the problem BEFORE there is damage.

I don't know what you mean about EPA "changing the status" of the pesticide. There are currently over 20 similar or identical products on the market, and that's not even counting products that contain other insect pheromones. This includes products that can be applied aerially. None of them have been canceled or restricted as far as I can tell. I'm guessing you're trying to imply that EPA discovered that these products are actually dangerous. That's just not true. These pheromone products continue to be one of the safest pesticides on the market - and they are able to be used in organic agriculture.

Retrieverman said...

California is no longer spraying to control the moth.

The state is now using pheromone scented twist ties. They are also releasing sterile moths that still prodce the pheromone.

It's now a moot issue.

Gypsy moths are big problem here, and I don't care what they use to kill them. And the same goes for the emerald ash borer. Japanese stilt grass-- they've just found a pathogent that kills it. I hope it's very contagious.

CyborgSuzy said...

It's obviously not a moot issue because people keep bringing it up and citing rumor as if it were fact.

Yeah, the state is doing what it should have done to begin with. They should have known that aerially spraying near houses would freak people out. And the twist ties seem to be working in New Zealand, so there's no reason not to use them here.