By Julia Solomon
Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine
Published June 2007
If another article about the perils of plant and animal invaders makes you sigh, shake your head, and skip to the next story, you’re not alone.
Invasive species have received a lot of press in the past few years, most of it bad and some downright alarming. From the emerald ash borer to the Asian carp to the giant hogweed, it seems there is always a new monster lurking at the borders just waiting for the chance to wreak havoc on our beloved woods and waters.
It can be tempting to tune out all this bad news and assume the problem will go away, that someone else will fix it, or worse, that it’s hopeless. Each one of these assumptions is understandable, but none is accurate, and none brings us any closer to a solution.
It’s time for an honest look at the reality of invasive species in Wisconsin, and examining these assumptions is a good place to start.
Won’t invasives just go away?
The short answer: no. A variety of factors, from global commerce to climate change, are making it ever easier for organisms to move around and find new homes. The rate of species introductions has accelerated in recent decades and increasing numbers of non-native species are becoming established in Wisconsin.
Scientists call this “biotic homogenization”—the global mixing of plants and animals from around the world. Over the millennia, each region of the world evolved its own unique flora and fauna. But now that people and goods move around more quickly and freely than ever before, remote places are no longer so isolated. It is not unusual for species to jump from one continent to another, much less across state lines. Some are carried intentionally, as new landscape plants or sport fish. Others come in as hitchhikers in wood products, forage, soil or boating equipment.
This number of jet-setting species is likely to increase, which means those doomsday headlines about the next big invader are probably going to keep coming. Even if we figure out ways to control today’s invasive species, there will likely be more arriving tomorrow, dumped from the ballast water of ocean-going ships, swimming up a manmade channel, or creeping up from southern states as the climate becomes warmer.
Once they are here, invasive species are difficult - often impossible - to eradicate completely. Unfortunately, the problem of invasives is here to stay.
This fact, though sobering, should not be cause for despair. Yes, we are in for a long haul. No, there are not likely to be miraculous quick-fix solutions. And, yes, these unwelcome guests will affect Wisconsin’s environment - indeed, they already have. But those impacts do not need to be catastrophic. Not every lake, forest or bog is destined to be overrun. With diligent monitoring and containment, many of our ecological gems can be protected.
Strategic investment in prevention, early detection, and control of invasive species will help the natural and human communities of Wisconsin adapt to the reality of life in the biotic fast lane. We can learn to live with some inevitable changes while preserving what we love.
Isn’t it somebody else’s job?
Investment is a loaded word. It means not only money, but time: hours spent pulling garlic mustard from a neighborhood forest, inspecting trees for new pests, cleaning zebra mussels off drinking water intakes. It also means devoting dollars to everything from scientific research to signs at boat launches and state parks.
Confronting the reality of invasive species is a daunting task—surely there is someone who is responsible for dealing with the problem? There is, and it is all of us.
It’s easy to place blame for invasive species and there’s often a lot of finger-pointing when these organisms are discovered: We have invasive plants in our lakes because visiting boaters bring them in. Emerald ash borers arrive on firewood visitors brought from other states. New species arrive in the Great Lakes because federal ballast water regulations aren’t strict enough. Scientific researchers should come up with more effective methods of control. The cost of invasives should be borne by the town, the state, the federal government, not by outdoor users.
Whether or not these claims are true, they miss the point. Invasive species are a long-term, large-scale problem that will not be solved by pointing fingers. True solutions will require many partners, substantial funding, and, yes, a lot of volunteer hours. It’s an investment we will all have to make. Government officials, resource managers, researchers and local citizens all have a role to play.
What’s the use?
In some ways, this is the easiest question to answer. Throwing up our hands in surrender will not slow the spread. Keeping invasive species at bay can be costly and tiring, but when your back aches from pulling buckthorn, stop for a moment and imagine the alternative.
Wisconsinites share a deep love for our natural places and the native species that make this land feel like home. We will not stand aside to watch our flora and fauna be choked out by invasive species. We cannot afford to. Three of the state’s top industries—agriculture, tourism and forestry—all depend on natural resources and are threatened by invaders.
But the reasons for working against invasives go far beyond economics. Rituals such as watching for the first trillium bloom and pulling panfish from a familiar lake are part of Wisconsin culture, and we care about them passionately. Invasive species put these rituals at risk. Ultimately, it is our love of home that motivates citizens and policymakers to confront the problem of invasives with realism, persistence and optimism.
That optimism is not unfounded. As in the rest of life, bad news about invasive species tends to grab the headlines while successes often slip by unnoticed. In these pages you will find stories of the hard work going on around the state and learn about the progress being made. You’ll also find out about the many ways you can help protect Wisconsin’s native species.
Take heart, and read on!
Julia Solomon is an educator explaining aquatic invasive species issues for the Department of Natural Resources and UW-Extension.