Invasive species control: Where traditional environmentalism and climate activism align

Sometimes, when I think about climate change, I feel like there’s not much point to things like species preservation. If the rising temperature is going to kill most endangered species anyway, then what’s the point? At minimum, shouldn’t we invest all that money and effort into ending fossil fuel use?

The thing is, as I’ve mentioned before, we need those species. More accurately, we need functioning ecosystems, and those are made up of a diverse array of organisms. More than that, there’s ample evidence that in dealing with climate change and chemical pollution, actively working to support struggling ecosystems may help a great deal. Just as it would be dangerous to think we’re separate from the biosphere, it’s also dangerous to think that if we solve the fossil fuel problem, everything else will fall into place. In a world where we desperately need to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels, does it really matter if the plants are “local”, as long as they’re photosynthesizing and feeding insects?

Well, as it turns out, yes. It really does matter.

It is no secret that the ecological health of the planet is under serious threat. Scientists have previously identified invasive species, drought and an altered nitrogen cycle, driven in part by the widespread use of synthetic fertilizers, as among the most serious planetary challenges, with global climate change topping the list. Many have assumed that climate change would consistently amplify the negative effects of invasives—but, until now, there was no research to test that assumption.

“The good news,” says Bethany Bradley, professor of environmental conservation at UMass Amherst and the paper’s senior author, “is that the bad news isn’t quite as bad as we thought.”

To reach this conclusion, the team, led by Bianca Lopez, who conducted the research as part of her postdoctoral training at UMass Amherst, and Jenica Allen, professor of environmental conservation at UMass Amherst, conducted a meta-analysis of 95 previously published studies. From this earlier work, the researchers found 458 cases that reported on the ecological effects of invasive species combined with drought, nitrogen or global warming.

“What we found surprised us,” says Lopez. “There were a number of cases where the interactions made everything worse at the local scale, which is what we expected to see, but only about 25% of the time. The majority of the time, invasions and environmental change together didn’t make each other worse. Instead, the combined effects weren’t all that much more than the impact of invasive species alone.”

That surprised me, too, when I first read this, but have you ever seen what it looks like when an invasive plant takes over an area? Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my dad as he studied garlic mustard. It’s a biennial plant from the UK that can be used as an herb in cooking (hence the name), and is remarkably good at generating vast amounts of durable seeds. In the US, one plant setting seed is enough for them to start taking over. They spread so densely that nothing else can grow, and if you want to kill off a population, you have to uproot and remove the flowering plants every year for something like five years before you can be sure that there aren’t any seeds that will just sprout and undo all your work.

Another one I’ve worked with is honeysuckle – a woody shrub brought to the US from Asia as a decorative plant, if memory serves. Like the garlic mustard, when it takes over, it chokes out everything else, but the effect is more extreme and obvious. I’m not certain that it’s allelopathic, but it sure seems like it is, because nothing grows under them. Part of that is also because they put out leaves not just before trees do, but before spring wildflowers do. Normally, a forest will have a variety of plants growing in the understory, for a variety of reasons. In large parts of the U.S., honeysuckle forms such a dense layer that it’s like a green fog over the landscape in the early spring, and it’s just bare soil and dead leaves underneath that fog.

So really, it shouldn’t have surprised me. Invasive species cause major changes to the landscape when they take root, and it makes sense that an ecosystem that’s missing so many plant species will operate very differently from one that has a healthy level of diversity.

“What is so important about our findings,” says Allen, “is that they highlight the critical importance of managing invasive species at the local scale.” And the local scale is precisely the scale at which effective and swift action is most likely to happen.

In fact, as Allen points out, it already is. “Organizations like the Northeast Regional Invasive Species and Climate Change (RISCC) Network, which is a consortium of scientists and natural resource managers dedicated to sharing information and best practices about dealing with invasives, are already implementing a whole range of proactive practices to deal with invasive species.” And because confronting invasive species is comparatively cost-effective and doesn’t require future technological innovation, real progress can be made right now, especially by preventing the spread of invasive plants before they take over.

“Our work shows that dealing with invasive species now will make our ecosystems more climate resilient,” says Bradley.

And as we know, resilience is key. There’s a tendency among modern left-wing climate activists of dismissing the environmentalist movement of the 20th century. To a depressingly large degree, I think that’s valid. While the movement did have some real successes, it was rotten with white supremacy, colonialism, and outright lies about indigenous people “mismanaging” the land. I say it “was” that way, but it often still is. That said, the focus on native species and the control of invasive species continues to be something that they got right.

If you’re looking for something to do about climate change, and you’re not sure where to start, you could do worse than looking into local efforts to deal with invasive species, and joining with those. I’ll just say that if you’re new to this stuff, try to get some actual training before you start uprooting plants – sometimes it’s extremely hard to be certain what kind of thing you’re dealing with (that applies to animals and fungi as well), so look for efforts that are associated with a university of a nature center.

None of this stuff will lessen the need for revolutionary systemic change, but everything we can do to buy ourselves room to maneuver is worth doing. Helping your local ecosystem means helping your region with climate change, and if you do it with a group that’s already active, then it’s a way for you to network and organize.

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  1. says

    I saw a video recently about these invasive purple flowers taking over iceland on a completely berserk scale – vast oceans of the shit. If this is a menace to be eradicated, is it within human reach? A possible math project came to mind. Carefully calculate the scale of the work necessary, figure out how many people will be needed, and invite some refugees or other people who wouldn’t mind their kids turning into synth vikings to help man the effort. Would that be feasible, or past a certain point must one throw up one’s hands? (side question would iceland be too racist to do that)

  2. says

    Also, should we be annihilating eurasian starlings in the USA? I wouldn’t mind having a giant fur coat made out of their shiny little feathers. Pleat it to use more surface area. I saw a native crow doing its part one time on a rooftop. Each time the beak stabbed down, the starling would squeak. Grim business, baby.

  3. Katydid says

    Kudzu and bamboo are other invasive species. Oh, and English Ivy. Unfortunately, ticks (which are really super-double-plus terrible this year), live in ivy.

  4. says

    For that matter, almost the entire U.S. has been taken over by invasive earthworms, with only a few pockets left that still have indigenous species.

    The honeysuckle I worked with was Lonicera maackii. The Japanese honeysuckle seems to have some evidence for allelopathy, but I couldn’t find anything about the bush honeysuckle in the time I had.

    As to the starlings, I do recall seeing a campaign a while back to make starling liver pate and promote it as a delicacy to encourage the hunting of starlings.

    I feel like that wouldn’t be safe, though, given how many chances there are for them to eat something with bio-accumulative chemicals in it.

  5. says

    And honestly? Cats are a problem. I love cats. His Holiness has improved my life immeasurably, and I think that when he reaches the end of his run, I’ll get another cat (dogs are too big, expensive and effortful for my income and living situation, I just couldn’t pass up a dog like Raksha when I met her).

    But cats are a problem. I will never have an outdoor cat. There should be a mass capture, sterilization, and care campaign (seems preferable to culling), and I honestly think outdoor cats shouldn’t be allowed. The world’s ecosystems are already under too much pressure, and cats are not just effective predators, their population is being constantly and unnaturally maintained and replenished by humanity. They’re less an invasive species than they are an unending occupation.

  6. StevoR says

    @ ^ Abe Drayton : I love cats and am owned by a big fat happy one myself but agree 100%. My cat is an indoor one* – after being caught red-pawed poaching the neighbours fish but yes.

    As for the damage invasive flora does, yeah, its way under-appreciated and under-estimated by most and can be incredibly destructive.

    Buffel grass (see : ) is literally transforming Country for Indigenous Peoples – & everyone else – in central Australia and I was wondering breifly if the plant doing the damage in Iceland mentioned by #1. Great American Satan might be our Salvation jane / Paterson’s Curse or Echium plantagineum. Which , it wasn’t but it is, along with so many other introduced weeds, a serious problem here.

    I & many others spend a lot of my time doing volunteer bushcare removing invasive woody and herbacaeous weeds including Boneseed (Chrysanthemoides monalifera), Broom (Genista monspessulana & Cytisus scoparius ), Olives (Olea europeaea), Pittosporum undulatum – actaully an Aussie tree but not a local native (Sweet Pittosporum), feral Rose species eg rosa rubignosa & caninia, and so many more incl even a South African orchid Monadenia (Disa bracteata). Others we’ve literally given up on sadly.

    Apparently quite a lot of Aussie native plants have become weedy elsewhere.

    Dunno if people have heard of or read before but Tim Low has written a couple of great books – The New Nature & Our Feral Future ( &'s%20award%2Dwinning%20book,gardens%2C%20exploiting%20everything%20we%20do.) which I’d highly recommend if folks are interested in this issue.

    * With an enclosure that gives her a small outdoor area plus a skywalk. A good investment that makes us both much happier.

  7. says

    There’s one invasive species in the US that gives me a little pause, and that’s reed canary grass. I ran into it out in Wisconsin, and it would be a cheap, fast way to store a large amount of carbon by building up topsoil.

    Like a lot of other invasives, it chokes out everything else, but when it does, it just bends over and forms a mat. The young shoots have a bud like a bullet that can literally punch through the mat. It builds its own soil, out of itself, and you could probably get a field to grow a couple generations in a growing season.

    Maybe if we treat it like a crop, in addition to controlling its population outside of carbon farms, we could make some real use of it.

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