When it comes to invasive species, can we learn from our mistakes?

This post contributed by ESA member Aviva Glaser, who works on agricultural policy for the National Wildlife Federation Seven years, my father decided to plant bamboo in his backyard, in an effort to improve the landscaping. A few years later, and sprouts can be seen creeping out from the bamboo grove in every direction. While my father keeps the bamboo stand under control for now, I wouldn’t be surprised if in another 20 years from now, bamboo begins popping up on some of the neighboring properties. The history of invasive species in this country has often started with good intentions. In the 1930s, for instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture paid farmers to plant kudzu, promoting it as a “miracle vine” to combat erosion. Years later, this plant is more commonly referred to as “the vine that ate the South,” and is estimated to cover an astonishing seven million acres of land in the southeast.  Not only has it devastated wildlife habitat, but its estimated economic impact in the United States is between $100 and $500 million, and that’s not even considering the millions of dollars spent to control kudzu every year. While we cannot go back and change what has already been done, we can learn from the past and make sure that we are not making the same mistakes in the future. We have just that opportunity right now. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently in the final stages of approving a rule which would allow two known noxious weeds, giant reed (Arundo donax) and napier grass (Pennisetum purpureum), to qualify as renewable fuel sources under the Renewable Fuel Standard. If this rule passes, the U.S. government would once again be creating incentives for the planting of invasive species, this time for renewable fuel. Scientists, however, think that we should be learning from our mistakes – and not be incentivizing the next kudzu or purple loosestrife. Just over a month ago, more than 200 scientists from across the country sent a letter to the Obama administration urging them to take a “look before you leap” approach to potentially invasive plants grown for bioenergy and warning that some crops being considered for large-scale energy plantings may actually be highly invasive and potentially harmful to native species. “Many of today’s most problematic invasive plants – from kudzu to purple loosestrife – were intentionally imported and released into the environment for horticultural, agricultural, conservation, and forestry purposes. These invasive species already cost billions of dollars a year in the United States and are one of the primary threats to North America’s native species and ecosystems. It is imperative that...

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ESA Policy News: November 9

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. 2012 ELECTION: RESULTS PRODUCE SAME PLAYERS, ADDED POLARIZATION The 2012 elections resulted in the continuation of a divided government with both parties more or less playing with the same hand they held before the election. President Obama remains in the White House, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) retains control of the Senate (albeit with a slightly more cushioned majority) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) retains control of the House with a substantial majority of over 230 Republican members. White House The re-election of President Obama generally means no significant policy changes for federal agencies. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) continues its National Oceans Policy, the Department of Interior’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative remains intact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will continue its regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions and its current Clean Water Act and mountain-top removal mining policies will be sustained.  The Department of State will continue its review of the Keystone XL pipeline with its early 2013 date on whether it will approved. The great unknown is who among the federal agency heads will be staying on to implement these policies. House US House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is expected to retain his role as is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). Congress’s first order of business, upon returning for its lame-duck session next week will be to address the fiscal cliff, a combination of automatic spending cuts enacted under the Budget Control Act and a series of expiring tax cuts enacted under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama. Speaker Boehner has declared that House Republicans are prepared to embrace a deficit reduction deal that includes revenue increases so long as those increases are coupled with further non-defense discretionary spending cuts and mandatory spending reductions. The Speaker has forewarned, however, that any revenue increases should be made through reforms to the tax code that closes loopholes, not through tax increases on the wealthiest Americans or small businesses. Republican control of the House means that many of the attempts to legislatively delist species from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, prohibit funding for NOAA’s proposed climate service, roll back Department of Interior and EPA regulations intended to protect the environment and cut or limit discretionary spending on certain science initiatives, will also continue over the next two years. House committee oversight hearings that are highly critical of various administration regulations and initiatives will also continue under the current majority. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) retains control of the Senate, partially due to...

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A perspective on ecological consequences of GM crops

This post contributed by ESA member Sean Hoban, a post-doc in conservation genetics at the University of Ferrara, Italy. In the opening pages of his book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan quotes agrarian writer Wendell Berry in reminding us that, “Eating is an ecological act.”  Simultaneously, eating is also a political act.  Indeed, in the past year, headlines about local food and the US Farm Bill have reminded us of the interplay between agriculture, government policy, and the environment.  Food choices are complex, requiring diverse knowledge to understand the consequences of our choices, especially regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs), one of this years’ most hotly debated topics.  GMOs are crop varieties that have been engineered to carry genes for desirable traits, taken either from other species or synthesized in the laboratory.  Such crops now make up more than 90% of sugar beet and cotton grown in the USA, and 88% of corn. Most of the debate about GMOs (understandably) centers on human health, but GMOs also influence other aspects of social-ecological systems.  This post looks at a few basic ecological concerns, which have not received much mainstream attention.  The Ecological Society of America (ESA) published a position statement in 2005 that explains these and other issues in detail.  Wikipedia has a thorough article on many benefits and costs of GMOs. While GM crops have been around since the mid-1990s, a lot is happening in 2012.  In November, Californians will vote about GMO labeling, while recently a similar “Right to Know” bill was abandoned in Vermont (after legal threats from agribusiness titan Monsanto).  Russia recently banned imports of GM corn based on a recent controversial French study that claimed to have demonstrated a link to cancer.  And next year, the US Supreme Court will consider a lawsuit between Monsanto and an Indiana farmer who unknowingly planted patented GM seeds. One big ecological concern is the potential for GM traits to “escape” into other species by hybridization.  A common GM trait is resistance to particular types of herbicides, such as glyphosate, so strong herbicides can be used to control weeds without affecting crops .  Other GM plants produce their own insecticides, such as Bt toxin, to prevent pest damage and require less pesticide application.  Future GM crops might be created to have higher nutritional value (e.g. to produce particular vitamins) or tolerate environmental stress.  The worst-case scenario sometimes portrayed is that such genes could escape into plants outside cultivation, creating super weeds (weeds resistant to herbicides) or otherwise altering a plant’s ecosystem role or relative fitness (as shown in squash) due to toxicity, growth habits, or nutrient value, with cascading ecosystem effects...

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ESA Policy News: October 12

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here.  EDUCATION: SUBCOMMITTEE CHAIRMAN REQUESTS GAO REVIEW OF REGULATORY IMPEDIMENTS TO UNIVERSITY RESEARCH  On Oct. 3, House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting a review of regulatory actions that may hinder research at the nation’s universities. The letter comes following  a recent report from the National Research Council of the National Academies entitled Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to our Nation’s Prosperity and Security. Among its recommendations was a call to “reduce or eliminate regulations that increase administrative costs, impede research productivity, and deflect creative energy without substantially improving the research environment.” The National Academies report also recommends raising government, industry and philanthropy support for Research and Development (R&D) to three percent of Growth Domestic Product, fully funding the America COMPETES Act and “doubling the level of basic research conducted by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.” To view Rep. Brooks’ letter, click here. The full National Academies report and a PDF summary is available here. FORESTS: SUPREME COURT SUSTAINS ROADLESS RULE On Oct. 1, the United States Supreme Court stated it would not review a Clinton administration roadless rule that protects 45 million acres of national forest from road construction and logging. The decision ends a decade of legal challenges that began when the rule was first finalized in January 2001. Petitioners had asked the Supreme Court to overturn a decision last year by the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the Clinton rule and reversed a US district judge’s determination that the rule had created de facto wilderness and violated the National Environmental Policy Act. Petitioners included the state of Wyoming, the Colorado Mining Association and the American Petroleum Institute. After the ruling, Gov. Matt Mead stated that while he had concerns about what the decision would mean for economic opportunity in his state, he intends to work collaboratively with the US Forest Service to address these issues. INTERIOR: NOMINATIONS SOUGHT FOR CLIMATE CHANGE ADVISERS The US Department of Interior (DOI) is seeking nominations for a new panel to be composed of outside scientific experts to help inform the agency’s work on the impacts of climate change on natural resources. Those nominated would serve on DOI’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science. The committee will advise the US Geological Survey’s National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center (NCCWSC)...

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ESA Policy News: September 28

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. BUDGET: NEW REPORT OUTLINES SEQUESTRATION IMPACTS ON SCIENCE On Sept. 27, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) published a report outlining the impacts of budget sequestration on federal science funding. Established under the Budget Control Act (P.L. 112-25), the budget sequestration, set to go into effect on January 2, 2013, would shave $55 billion in defense spending and $38 billion in non-defense discretionary spending. Within these numbers, Department of Defense Research and Development (R&D) would lose an average of $6.7 billion per year for the next five years. The National Science Foundation would lose $456 million in FY 2013 and a total of $2.1 billion over the next five years. Over the same five-year period, funding for R&D at the Departments of Agriculture (-$875 million), Energy (-$4.585 billion) Interior (-$299 million), the National Aeronautics Space Administration (-$3.527 billion) and the Environmental Protection Agency (-$213 million) would also be drastically reduced. Last month, the Ecological Society of America, the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) and the American Mathematical Society crafted an action alert encouraging their members to contact their representatives to let them know the devastating impacts budget sequester would have on research in the communities they represent. To go to the AIBS Legislative Action page where you’ll find more information on the fiscal cliff and budget sequestration as well as a letter to Members of Congress, click here. To view the full AAAS report, click here. AGRICULTURE: HOUSE LEADERSHIP PUNTS FARM BILL TO LAME DUCK SESSION On Sept. 21, the House adjourned for the fall and will not convene again until after the November elections. The month-long October district work period has become typical in modern presidential election years. However, this year differs from four years ago in that Congress has chosen to adjourn without taking up an extension of the farm bill. The most recent reauthorization of the agricultural law, the Food, Conservation and Energy Act (P.L. 110-234), was passed by a Democratic House and Senate and signed by a Republican president in June 2008. Four years later, while Senate leaders passed a bill to reauthorize the nation’s food and agricultural programs, the House has failed to take up such a measure. House Speaker John Boehner cited the splintered factions on the both sides of the aisle as rationale enough to assume the bill cannot obtain the 218 vote threshold necessary to clear the chamber. The Senate bill passed this June with a bipartisan vote of 64-35, including the support of Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry...

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Global economic pressures trickle down to local landscape change, altering disease risk

by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer The pressures of global trade may heighten disease incidence by dictating changes in land use. A boom in disease-carrying ticks and chiggers has followed the abandonment of rice cultivation in Taiwanese paddies, say ecologist Chi-Chien Kuo and colleagues, demonstrating the potential for global commodities pricing to drive the spread of infections. Their work appears in the September issue of ESA’s journal Ecological Applications. After Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, active cultivation of rice paddies fell from 80 percent to 55 percent in just three years. The government of Taiwan subsidized twice-yearly plowing of abandoned fields to reduce the spread of agricultural pests into adjacent fields still in cultivation. Compliance has been spotty. Kuo found that, while plowing did not suppress rodent populations, it did inadvertently reduce the presence of the ticks and chiggers that use rodents as their primary hosts. “The government considers only agricultural pests such as insects and rodents. They don’t think about the disease factors,” said Kuo. But land use policy can have complex and unexpected reverberations in the ecology of the landscape. Chiggers, the larval stage of trombiculid mites, spread scrub typhus (Orientia tsutsugamushi), a bacterium that gets its name from the scrubby, dense vegetation that often harbors its flesh-loving host. Scrub typhus is a common culprit underlying visits to Southeast Asian hospitals for flu-like symptoms. It is one of the rare bacterial infections that develop into hemorrhagic fever. Without antibiotics, the infection is often fatal. Ticks (Ixodidae) transmit bacteria spotted fever group rickettsiae, causing fever, aches and rash similar to Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Neither pest prefers to live underwater. Hualien, Kuo’s study area, is one of the least populous of Taiwan’s counties, yet had nearly the highest incidence of scrub typhus from 1998-2007. The county is a smattering of small villages surrounded by a patchwork of flooded, plowed, and abandoned rice paddies. Flooded paddies are poor habitat for ticks and chiggers, and so cultivation of rice, which locally means carefully managed flooding of fields to drown agricultural pests, likely suppresses ticks and chiggers as well. Even the seemingly unkillable ticks die after a few weeks of submersion, and chiggers are similarly terrestrial. Though studies are few, limited data indicate that most chiggers die after a month under water. This study did not assess flooded paddies due to the difficulty of finding and collecting rodents, ticks, and chiggers underwater. Instead, Kuo trapped rodents in fallow and plowed fields and examined their tick and chigger passengers, testing the arachnids for presence of disease-causing rickettsial bacteria. He found 6 times as many ticks on the rodents living...

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ESA Policy News: June 22

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: HOUSE COMMITTEE MOVES AGRICULTURE, INTERIOR SPENDING BILLS  This month, the House Appropriations Committee has continued work on its Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 spending bills. Most recently, it has released legislation funding environmental and agricultural federal programs. On June 19, the committee approved its Agriculture Appropriations Act for FY 2013. That day, the committee also released its FY 2013 Interior and Environment appropriations bill, which was marked up by subcommittee the following day. Agriculture In total, the Agriculture Appropriations Act for FY 2013 includes $19.4 billion in discretionary spending, a $365 million reduction from FY 2012 and $1.7 billion less than Obama’s FY 2013 budget request. Agricultural research programs, including the Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, would be funded at $2.5 billion, a $35 million reduction from FY 2012. The Natural Resources Conservation Service would receive $812 million, a $16 million decrease from FY 2012. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service would receive $787 million, $33 million below FY 2012. A funding program to help farmers make environmental improvement on their lands was cut by $500 million compared to the current farm bill’s authorized levels. Interior The House Interior and Environment Appropriations Act for FY 2013 contains $28 billion in funding, a cut of $1.2 billion below FY 2012 and $1.7 billion below the president’s FY 2013 budget request. The bill funds the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Forest Service and related environmental initiatives. EPA funding undergoes a particularly high number of cuts in the House bill. The bill funds EPA at $7 billion, a $1.4 billion (17 percent) cut from FY 2012. This brings total funding in the bill below FY 1998 levels. The legislation continues a cap on EPA’s personnel at the lowest number since 1992 and cuts the office of the EPA administrator by over 30 percent. The EPA Congressional Affairs office receives a 50 percent cut. For additional information on the Agriculture bill, click here. For additional information on the Interior bill, click here. OSTP: SCIENCE COMMITTEE REVIEWS WHITE HOUSE PRIORITIES On June 20, 2012, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee hosted White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren for a hearing entitled “Examining Priorities and Effectiveness of the Nation’s Science Policies.” During the hearing several Republicans inquired if the U.S. was maintaining investment in certain areas, including space technology and high-energy physics, relative to other countries. Holdren responded that the U.S. remains “on the cutting edge” and “unmatched”...

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Social immunity of bees

by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer A honey bee (Apis mellifera) afflicted with Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that sucks away its vital, blood-like hemolymph, often passing along viruses in the process, and leaving open wounds. The mite spreads by bee-to-bee contact, accelerated by yearly circuits of agricultural bee broods transported to pollinate almonds and blueberries and other crops. Varroa is a suspect in the still mysterious and ongoing bee disappearance known as colony collapse disorder. But mitocides are suspect as well. Credit, Stephen Ausmus, USDA. FOOD maven Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of the American Public Media radio show The Splendid Table, talked honey bees with entomologist Marla Spivek in a long segment for her May 12th show. Spivak takes her host outside the studio and into the apiary to look inside the secrets of the hive. Over a hum of wings, they talk about the daily activities of male drones, female worker bees, nurse bees, larvae, and the queen – laying her thousand eggs a day. Spivak is a 2010 MacArthur Fellow and Distinguished McKnight Professor in Entomology at the University of Minnesota, where she runs her Bee Lab. In 2006, an abrupt bee population crash began and spread around the world. Bee populations have been diminishing since WWII, Spivak says, in concert with the vast agricultural changes of the last century, but why the current crisis set in with such suddenness is a mystery. An alarming, expensive mystery. Bees pollinate a third of our fruits and vegetables. We have developed an ag system that depends for fertility on the specific ministrations of Apis mellifera – an old world bee that migrated to the Americas (and Australia and New Zealand) with Europeans and European agriculture.  Farmers contract with apiarists to bring hives to their orchards and fields seasonally. Some hives have extended tours. All this migratory labor can be hard on bees. Spivak says colony collapse disorder is most likely the result of a potpourri of deadly influences: the stresses of travel, viral infections, parasite infestations, and pesticides. Researchers are looking for a new disease or new pesticide that might be the kicker on the evil brew. In happier news, public consciousness of bees has jumped since the collapse, with a surge in interest in beekeeping and bee-friendly landscaping. Spivak’s lab investigates  bees’ natural defenses, bee pathogens, and landscape effects on bees and other pollinators, and is working on breeding resistance into their bees. Spivak says bees cope with infection in the hive by “sniffing out larvae when they’re sick” and tossing the sick out of the colony. Bee biologists have recently begun thinking of this “social immunity” as...

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