Reflections on the Release of Non-Native Species
I recently came across this article from the National Audubon Society about a parrot rescue group in Southern California who is rehabilitating and re-releasing injured parrots. The hitch in this plan? There are no parrots that are native to Southern California. All of the birds being released were non-native species that should never have been there in the first place. In most places it is illegal to do this, and was it even a responsible or ethical decision to do so in the first place?
Over the past few years, I have been paying more and more attention to the narrative surrounding non-native species. The horror stories are constantly being told, from the Quagga Mussel causing billions of dollars in damage along the Mississippi River and in the Great Lakes to Lionfish in the Atlantic and Caribbean to invasive pigs across much of the US.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service says “The negative consequences of invasive species are far-reaching, costing the United States billions of dollars in damages every year.” Additionally, they say that “more than 400 of the over 1,300 species currently protected under the Endangered Species Act, and more than 180 candidate species for listing are considered to be at risk at least partly due to displacement by, competition with, and predation by invasive species.” If non-native and invasive species are such a danger and create such havoc, why would any group be allowed or choose to release them?
Are All Species Equal?
While there are few if any who would claim that these invasive species are not a problem and that there should not be any programs put in place to try to control their populations, we have to question whether or not the damage these species inflict is comparable to other species’ impacts. The short answer to this question is no.
In an article on National Geographic’s website, one author argues that “there are the non-natives that we actually like. Most domestic crops are exotic in most of the places they’re grown, but there are even wild exotics that “do good,” forming useful relationships with native species.” The author also points out that “most of the extinctions and population declines that mar our beautiful Earth aren’t caused by exotic species. They’re due to development that is destroying habitat, often needlessly.”
Additionally, there are some who argue that a number of non-native animals not only do not cause harm, but a number of them can actually have a net positive on the ecosystems they are introduced to. With these radically different opinions on the impact of non-native species clashing on a fundamental level, what should the approach be and how should we be going about trying to ensure the survival of our ecosystems?
I believe that, like with many things in life, the best answers don’t come from either extreme but rather from somewhere in the middle. In short, there are definitely problematic species that need to be controlled, but if the species offer a neutral or even positive affect, why do we need to spend our time and money worrying about them?
One of the biggest problems that I see is that many people tend to look at a snapshot view of the world and want to keep it the way they see it. Our ideas of what animals should be in what ecosystems is defined almost entirely on what has been observed there over the past couple hundred years. It seems to me that most think that the entire evolutionary history of the Earth have led to today and thus ecosystems have found their ideal form. They are unable or unwilling to see that all ecosystems are constantly in flux and that with or without us this snapshot will change again, just as it has changed before.
A few weeks ago, I read an article online (I forgot to save it and now can’t find it) about a fish that has been making its way south through the Indo-Pacific and is threatening to reach Australia. There are predictions of untold destruction on native species should this fish arrive. However, the fish is migrating on its own. It is adapting to different levels of salinity and swimming from island to island. It’s not being carried by man or released by irresponsible pet owners. Should we fight this natural expansion by a species simply because it doesn’t fit into the picture we have created?
These are difficult questions, and ones that ultimately I’m not qualified to try to answer. I can give my opinion, and others can agree or disagree, but I should definitely not be looked at as an authoritative voice on this topic. However, I do think that we all have a responsibility to question what we are told, so I will question whether or not the voices shouting for the elimination of all the species they consider non-native (which looking historically, how long does an animal have to have existed in one place before it’s considered “native”?) have any more credence to their arguments than those who point out potential benefits.
And for the parrots being released? They are non-native animal species living in non-native plant species in a man-made environment carved from an incredibly dry piece of land. I think preserving the local native ecosystems went out the window long ago.