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 18

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: CONFERENCE AGREEMENT INCREASES SCIENCE INVESTMENT Congressional leaders recently agreed upon a conference report agreement on a mini-omnibus appropriations measure (“mini-bus”) to for three separate appropriations bills through the remainder of Fiscal Year (FY) 2012. The bill also contains a continuing resolution (CR) that extends through December 16 to allow Congress additional time to come to an agreement on funding levels for the nine remaining appropriation bills. All together, the mini-bus includes $182 billion in spending for the Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, Commerce, Justice as well as the National Science Foundation (NSF). The bill passed the House on Nov. 17 by a vote of 298-121. All but 20 Democrats supported the bill while 101 Republicans voted against it. President Obama is expected to sign the measure. For NSF, the bill provides $7.033 billion, a $173 million increase from what was enacted for FY 2011. NOAA is funded at $4.9 billion for FY 2012, an increase of $306 million over FY 2011. For programs funded under the Department of Agriculture, the Agricultural Research Service is provided with $1.09 billion, down from $1.133 billion in FY 2011. The National Institute of Food and Agricultural receives nearly $705.6 million, an increase from $698.7 million in FY 2011. The bill provides $844 million for Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) programs, a $45 million decrease from FY 2011. A detailed summary of the conference report can be found here. STATE DEPARTMENT: DECISION ON KEYSTONE XL PIPELINE POSTPONED UNTIL 2013 On Nov. 10, the U.S. Department of State announced that it was delaying a decision on the controversial TransCanadian Keystone XL pipeline until the first quarter of 2013, in effect postponing the decision until after the 2012 presidential election. The State Department said it needed to conduct further investigation of the impact of  Keystone XL on the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, a process it said could not be completed until at least the first quarter of 2013. The agency had previously said it expected a decision by the end of the year. If constructed, Keystone XL would run 1,700 miles from Canada to Texas and would convey a type of oil from Alberta, Canada, that is more carbon-intensive to produce than are other forms. Environmentalists are strongly opposed to the pipeline, with some asserting that the administration’s decision would significantly impact their support for Obama in 2012. Opposition to the pipeline also attracted a significant proportion of young voters, a key demographic in the president’s election in 2008. Nebraska politicians had...

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ESA Policy News: August 19, 2011

Here are some highlights from the latest Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. EPA: AGENCY DEFENDS ‘ENDANGERMENT’ FINDING IN FEDERAL COURT On August 18, the Environmental Protection Agency filed a brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit defending its Dec. 2009 ‘endangerment’ finding that carbon dioxide emissions threaten public health. The finding resulted in the first-ever federal limits on greenhouse gases from large industrial plants. The brief is being challenged by various conservative states and industry organizations, including the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who contend that EPA’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases are a burden on the nation’s economy. The Obama administration maintains that it relied on “thorough and peer-reviewed assessments of climate change science” from the U.N.-affiliated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the National Research Council. FWS: RECOVERY DECLARED FOR LAKE ERIE WATER SNAKE On August 15, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced it has removed the Lake Erie water snake from the endangered and threatened species list after a nearly decade long recovery from threats including human killings and habitat loss. The snake, found on offshore islands in western Lake Erie in Ohio and Ontario, is the 23rd species to be delisted due to recovery. The species was first listed as threatened in 1999. In 2003, FWS finalized a recovery plan that called for protecting the animal’s shoreline habitat and increasing cooperation with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife and other partners. Recovery criteria include a combined population of at least 5,555 snakes on the U.S. islands, sustained for six years, and protection of key habitat. According to the Department of Interior, through continued habitat protection and public education, the Lake Erie water snake population grew to about 11,980 in 2009, and has exceeded the minimum recovery level since 2002. About 300 acres of inland habitat and 11 miles of shoreline have been protected for the snake since it was listed. Partners in the efforts to recover the Lake Erie water snake include the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), Northern Illinois University, Lake Erie Islands Chapter of the Black Swamp Conservancy, Western Reserve Land Conservancy, Put-in-Bay Township Park District, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Ohio State University Stone Laboratory. GREAT LAKES: EPA DISTRIBUTES RESTORATION GRANTS On August 8, the Environmental Protection Agency announced the first of several awards towards totaling nearly $30 million for Great Lakes Restoration. The awards are distributed through the administration’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), first proposed by President Obama in Feb. 2009 and...

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The UK landscape, naked mole rat genome and plant pollination tricks

Termites and biofuel: Mike Scharf from Purdue University and colleagues explored how enzymes found in the guts of termites could be useful in breaking down biomass—that is, branches, leaves and other woody debris—to hasten the production of biofuels. As he said in a recent press release, “For the most part, people have overlooked the host termite as a source of enzymes that could be used in the production of biofuels. For a long time it was thought that the symbionts were solely responsible for digestion…Certainly the symbionts do a lot, but what we’ve shown is that the host produces enzymes that work in synergy with the enzymes produced by those symbionts. When you combine the functions of the host enzymes with the symbionts, it’s like one plus one equals four.” Read more at “Termites’ digestive system could act as biofuel refinery.” UK landscape exposed: The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology published a land cover map of the United Kingdom this week, compiling more than 70 satellite images taken between 2005 and 2008. As Damian Carrington wrote on the Guardian blog, “It takes every scrap of land in the UK, down to a resolution of 25m, and identifies the habitat there. From mountains, heathers and bogs of Scotland to the broad fields of the barley barons of East Anglia, the environmental ‘DNA’ of the nation is revealed.” Read more at “Map lays bare landscape of UK in intimate detail.” Montana’s oil spill: On July 2, an Exxonmobil pipeline spilled into the Yellowstone River, the longest undammed river in the contiguous U.S. A Nature News article has noted that the ecological damage will be difficult to assess while standing pools of water—caused by recent flooding— remain along the river. According to a recent POLITICO article, Gov. Brian Schweitzer, “who has a master’s degree in soil science, said he’s concerned about the oily sheen that has been spreading over the wetlands, and about the effects of biomagnification as contaminants move their way up the food chain.” Read more at “Flooding complicates Montana oil spill response.” Naked mole rat’s genome: Joao Pedro De Magalhaes of the University of Liverpool, UK and other researchers have mapped the genome of east Africa’s naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber) to explore its anti-aging characteristics. As Michael Marshall reported in a recent New Scientist article, “The mole rats’ long lifespans [they can live up to 30 years] means that, like other long-lived creatures, they must have some means of staving off the harmful effects of ageing. There is evidence that they can rapidly recycle damaged proteins, keeping their systems running at tip-top efficiency.” Read more at “Coolest mammal...

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From the Community: Birds, bees, bats, beer and biofuels

A process of producing biofuels that yields brewer’s yeast, researchers’ evidence that human neurodegenerative disorders in Guam in the 1960s were linked to cyanobacteria, President Obama shows support for synthetic biology research and scientists track migratory birds at their farthest recorded distance. Here are highlights in ecology for the last week in May.

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Scientists look to tobacco leaves for biofuel

This post was contributed by Piper Corp, ESA Science Policy Analyst In a recent Plant Biotechnology Journal paper, scientists at Thomas Jefferson University’s Biotechnology Foundation Laboratories say that genetically modified tobacco “has the potential to produce more energy per hectare than any other non-food crop.” Tobacco Field in Pinar del Rio, Cuba Photo Credit: Henryk Kotowski Biofuel oil is typically pressed from seeds, rather than leaves or stems. Although tobacco plants are high in leaves and low in seeds, the seeds they do produce are quite oily. By shifting oil production and accumulation into the plants’ leaves, the researchers say they could significantly increase the oil production of standard leaves, in most cases doubling it, but in some cases achieving outputs up to 20 times higher. The paper discusses two different genetic modifications-one to increase oil production and one to increase accumulation. So far, researchers have not investigated the cumulative impact of making both modifications on a single plant. Even so, even one of the modifications (if done at a large scale) could make tobacco a significant source of biofuel-existing research indicates that engineered tobacco plants would produce at least twice as much biodiesel per hectare as soybeans. And since tobacco is abundant in more than 100 countries, the authors believe widespread deployment is well within reach. But since most biofuel oil currently comes from seeds, extracting it from leaves could present a challenge for commercial production. Once perfected, though, the process could have a number of added bonuses: extracting oil from leaves would yield glycerin as a byproduct, and fermenting the processed leaves would produce ethanol. Andrianov, V., Borisjuk, N., Pogrebnyak, N., Brinker, A., Dixon, J., Spitsin, S., Flynn, J., Matyszczuk, P., Andryszak, K., Laurelli, M., Golovkin, M., & Koprowski, H. (2009). Tobacco as a production platform for biofuel: overexpression of and genes increases accumulation and shifts the composition of lipids in green biomass Plant Biotechnology Journal DOI:...

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Biofuel’s indirect environmental effects

Biofuels hold promise for reducing the world’s consumption of unsustainable fossil fuels.  But like any new technology, they come with their own host of issues and problems.  One such problem is the so-called “indirect” effect of biofuels on the landscape and the atmosphere. For example, when farmlands are converted to biofuel crops, the food formerly grown on those lands needs to be grown somewhere else.  This could mean clearing of more forests to make room for more agricultural land, releasing carbon into the atmosphere.   A paper out in the Dec. 4 issue of Science investigates just these indirect effects.   Jerry Melillo of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole and his coauthors devised an economic and biogeochemical model to estimate the indirect costs of potential global cellulosic biofuel production on the environment and how they compare to the new technology’s direct effects. Unsurprisingly, the authors found that indirect effects are large. Surprisingly, however, they found that indirect environmental effects of biofuel production account for up to twice the amount of terrestrial carbon loss as the direct environmental effects. In addition, use of larger net amounts of fertilizer across farm and biofuel lands will contribute to the release of nitrous oxide to the atmosphere; nitrous oxide is about 300 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The authors acknowledge that the methods to assess indirect effects of biofuel production on the environment are controversial. Some analyses include only part of the picture, while others ignore indirect effects completely. Even if the measurements are crude, they assert, their study shows their paramount importance. As they write: There are a variety of concerns about the practicality of including land-use change emissions in a system designed to reduce emissions from fossil fuels, and that may explain why there are no concrete proposals in major countries to do so. In this situation, fossil energy control programs (LCFS or carbon taxes) must determine how to treat the direct and indirect GHG emissions associated with the carbon intensity of biofuels. Read more at Science in this short Science news piece or in the paper itself  (subscription required for full text). Melillo, J., Reilly, J., Kicklighter, D., Gurgel, A., Cronin, T., Paltsev, S., Felzer, B., Wang, X., Sokolov, A., & Schlosser, C. (2009). Indirect Emissions from Biofuels: How Important? Science, 326 (5958), 1397-1399 DOI:...

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ESA Policy News Update

My sincere apologies for this week’s EcoTone drought… this blogger was away on vacation. To re-whet your appetite, here are highlights from the latest Policy News Update from ESA’s policy analyst, Piper Corp. House Climate Bill: On May 21, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the American Clean Energy and Security Act by a vote of 33 to 25.  The committee approved a number of amendments, including ones establishing a federal “clean energy” bank, which would provide financial assistance for clean energy projects, and a “cash for clunkers” program, which would provide consumers with up to $4,500 toward replacing gas-guzzling cars with more efficient models. The committee also voted down Republican-backed amendments to add nuclear and hydroelectric power to the renewable electricity standard, as well as ones to provide a means for terminating the cap-and-trade program in the event of increased job loss or energy prices. Among the things yet to be decided are acceptable sources of biomass for renewable energy mandates (see the March 5 Policy News), emissions allocations for refineries, and repercussions for violations in gas, power and carbon markets. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said he expects a possible floor debate in late June or early July, following another month of fast-paced committee action. Senate Energy Bill: Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) appears to have gathered the twelve votes necessary to move forward with a renewable energy standard (RES) measure in the chamber’s massive energy bill. The current RES would require utilities to supply 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2021, allowing companies to cover roughly a fourth of the target with efficiency offsets. Committee members are still debating the specifics, however, and could mark up as many as 49 amendments next month. Fisheries: The Obama administration’s 2010 budget request includes $18.6 million for “catch-share” programs, new fisheries management programs that take a cap-and-trade-style approach to regulating catches. Under the traditional system, managers set a limit to the fishery’s total catch, and boats compete to bring in as many fish as possible before the fishery hits its limit. The resulting “race for fish” is, according to several studies, a major contributor to fishery decline and collapse. Catch-share programs are designed to incentivize more sustainable practices by guaranteeing all fishers a fixed number of shares from the total catch, a limit that is set annually by scientists. These shares, which can be bought and sold, increase in value when the fish populations increase, increasing the financial benefit of preserving the long-term health of the fishery. Recent studies have shown that catch-share programs can cut the collapse rate for fisheries in...

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