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Great Lakes Article:

Invasive Species Costing U.S. Over $130 Billion

Aliens land, put down firm roots


Posted 09/12/2002 , 2002 – Page A9
Globe and Mail

YELLOW QUILL MIXED GRASS PRAIRIE PROJECT, MAN. -- Gene Fortney has been driving through southern Manitoba now for almost three hours, and he's finally come to a piece of unbroken short-grass prairie.

He points from the rolled-down window of his '87 Chevy to a subtle haze of yellow in the field in front of him.

"This is it. This is the ugly stuff," he says.

It looks innocuous enough up close, just a regular bunch of leaves and forlorn yellow petals on a wiry stem.

But Mr. Fortney is a biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and this plant, Euphorbia esula or leafy spurge, has been his sworn enemy for a decade. It is killing the little that's left of North America's wild prairie.

Leafy spurge is an invasive alien species, one of thousands of biological intruders that have jumped from their home turf to new parts of the planet -- including Canada -- and have done terrible damage.

Ten years ago, when world leaders at the Earth Summit vowed to tackle the dangers facing the planet, invasive alien species merited no more than a mention in the final communiqué. The big issues then were extinction and climate change.

And while the warnings from Rio on those issues have come horribly true over the past decade -- the climate has officially changed as ever more greenhouse gases are put into the air, and more species are on the brink of extinction than ever before -- the threat of pest species has turned out to be far greater than anyone imagined.

Invasive alien species are acknowledged to be a serious and growing scourge that is wiping other species off the face of the Earth.

Scientists call them biological pollution, or even biological tumours because of their power to destroy other forms of life. These intruders are plants, mammals, insects, fish, mollusks and even viruses and fungi that have been transported by design or accident into parts of the world where they have no natural enemies. That puts the ecosystem wildly out of balance.

"It's a litany of woe and misery. It's quite astonishing," said Bill Freedman, an ecologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax who has written widely on this subject.

The most recent studies put the costs of damage from just a handful of alien species in the U.S. at $137-billion (U.S.). The costs to industry alone of Canada's most famous alien species, the dreaded zebra mussel (Driessana polymorpha), which has invaded the Great Lakes and some European water systems, is roughly $1-billion since 1989 and counting.

Some of the aliens that have just arrived, or are inexorably on the way, could inflict even more expensive damage. Asian carp, which, like the snakehead fish, can make its way across land if it needs to, is nearing the Great Lakes. The brown spruce longhorn beetle, found in Halifax, would devastate the boreal forest if it got the chance. And the West Nile virus, already found in four provinces just two years after it arrived in Canada, could be deadly to some humans and livestock.

Though species have been imported as long as humans have travelled (their invasions peak when human armies are on the march), scientists did not begin to understand the international scope of the problem until about five years ago, Jeff McNeely, chief scientist of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) said from his office in Gland, Switzerland. Dr. McNeely is the world's leading scientist on this topic.

The moment of truth came when the scientists looked at birds and mammals that have gone extinct over the years.

"The No. 1 cause, where the cause is known, is invasives," Dr. McNeely said. They're also responsible for putting a raft of species on the endangered lists, the biggest cause worldwide next to habitat destruction.

The problem is becoming dramatically worse as global trade ramps up. Canada, as one of the countries heavily tied to international trading regimes through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the North American free-trade agreement, is one of the countries seriously affected.

It's a costly problem.

Some of the direct price tag stems from the loss of productive cropland and waterways to alien creatures that can't be killed off. Other costs come from the price of chemicals used to keep them at bay. Not to mention the unknowable costs of destroying the native species that an intact biological system needs to thrive.

Of all these tenacious and destructive species, leafy spurge is a particularly worthy adversary, as Mr. Fortney knows all too well.

He's standing on part of the 830 hectares of the Yellow Quill project that he and Manitoba's Department of Agriculture painstakingly assembled for the Nature Conservancy of Canada over the past four years. It's one of the rare and best swatches of native mixed-grass prairie left in North America. Leafy spurge is eating it alive.

He's ticking off a list of what doesn't work to eradicate the spurge. Eradicate, heck. Even slow it down.

You can't burn it out because it just grows back stronger, he recites. It's not slowed down by mowing. The best known herbicide for it, 2,4-D, hardly touches spurge but does kill everything else that isn't a grass.

The spurge's complex tentacles of roots give off a toxin lethal to every plant but itself, making it one the prairie's worst neighbours and best spreaders.

No one has found a way to make money from the plant itself. Cattle, the big-money livestock, avoid it like the plague. Sheep and goats, the only livestock that can stomach its corrosive sap, have little market value.

What if you rip it out of the ground?

"That just makes it mad," Mr. Fortney said.

Leafy spurge is an epidemic throughout the Great Plains. So far, it infects more than 2 million hectares in North America, including 35 states and most Canadian provinces.

In Manitoba alone, which is the worst affected part of Canada, leafy spurge has all but taken over 136,000 hectares, which means the land can support 16,500 fewer cattle. Saskatchewan is nearly as afflicted, and British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and a tiny chunk each of Ontario and Quebec all have leafy spurge infections.

The plant probably came to the prairies with pioneers in the late 1800s in oat seed brought from Russia, crossing the evolutionary boundaries within which the plant had developed over millions of years. The original infection point for Manitoba is just a few miles from the Yellow Quill conservation site in the tiny town of Wawanesa, near the mouth of the Souris and Assiniboine Rivers.

By 1911, it had spread to Manitoba's wild prairie. Its range has been doubling every 10 years since. Then, nobody thought of it as a huge problem. The whole idea was to conquer the wild prairie, root out the native species and grow food.

Now, less than a century later, there's so little native prairie that some of Canada's unique plants and animals are in danger of disappearing. That's what Mr. Fortney and the Nature Conservancy are trying to prevent.

There's a terrible irony in the history of this piece of prairie. The Nature Conservancy bought its section from the Mooney family, pioneers who had fled Ireland to escape famine in the 1840s caused by the potato fungus (Phytophthora infestans). That fungus, taken to Ireland from North America, was one of the most infamous invasives.

Some of the worst mass killings of humans through history have been caused by alien invasives. The bubonic plague that killed 25 million Europeans during the 14th century came from Central Asia, carried by invasive rats from India.

The great Inca and Aztec civilizations were destroyed in part by the smallpox and measles viruses that the Spanish brought to the New World in the early 16th century.

While those millions of people were helpless to fight the invasives, scientists today are trying to do better.

Mr. Fortney and his crew have a full-time cowboy to herd goats on the project, leading them to the worst spurge spots where they gobble up the flowers and leaves.

The crew has let loose some beetles from the spurge's home habitat in Eurasia. They eat out the spurge, at least for a while. And the team is deliberately trying to spread a type of moth that binds the spurge's leaves together to form a cocoon and prevent it from spraying its seeds throughout the prairie. They've got a line on a new herbicide that might work.

All of this is experimental, though. It's not clear that any of it will beat back the alien.

Similar biological fights are going on throughout Canada and the United States against both old and new aliens.

They can be dramatic. The federal government leaped into action recently to cut and burn about 5,000 red spruce trees in Point Pleasant Park, an urban natural area in Halifax, because they were infected with the brown spruce longhorn beetle. The beetle attacks and kills healthy spruce trees and could spread to Canada's vast boreal forest if left unchecked, Prof. Freedman said.

It is thought to have arrived in Canada from Eastern Europe about a decade ago in wood packing material.

More recent is the arrival of the West Nile virus from Africa, carried by the culex mosquitoes. Ten horses in Manitoba have died from the virus so far this year. Birds throughout Southern Ontario and Quebec, and one in Saskatchewan, have tested positive for it.

The virus, which can lead to fatal encephalitis in humans, is thought to have been carried to North America in 1999 by infected birds. Mosquitoes feed on the infected birds and pass the virus to other healthy mammals and birds.

As for the starling, the most abundant bird in the world, it came to North America in the late Victorian era when a gentleman's club in New York decided to do what it could to make sure every species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare could be enjoyed on this side of the pond, Prof. Freedman said. It took several attempts, but the determined club mates succeeded in introducing the starling, which quickly began to kill off native birds by taking their nesting space.

"We're very, very naive about the ecological effects of most of our actions," said Prof. Freedman, adding that introductions of alien species often happen for whimsical reasons.

While it's clear that acting quickly to stop the spread of an alien is one key way to fight it, prevention is the best medicine, the scientists say, and it is a long way from being universally prescribed.

New Zealand, with its fragile island ecosystem, has taken the lead to protect its own borders with the Biosecurity Act of 1993. Canada has done little to keep the harmful species out, given the scope of the problem here, Prof. Freedman said.

"There are no substantive plans for dealing with these issues."

Globally, conservation experts are pushing for greater controls on the deliberate and accidental movement of species.

Alien species invade North America

Located below are a few of the thousands of alien species doing damage to North America. Unlike in their native habitat, there are no natural predators here to control these alien populations.

1. Purple loosestrife

Flowering plant came from Eurasia in early 1800s. Takes over wetlands and farmlands.

2. Zebra mussels

Came from the Caspian Sea in the mid-1980's in the ballast of a ship. They eat plankton so voraciously that there's little left for other species.

3. Asian carp

Imported from China by fish farmers in the U.S. in the 1970's. Eats and reproduces so well it shoves out other species. Great Lakes threatened.

4. West Nile virus

Came from Africa to North America in 1999, spread from infected birds to healthy birds and mammals by mosquitos. Can cause lethal encephalitis.

5. Common buckthorn

Arriving from Eurasia in the late 1800s, it was prized as an ornamental shrub. Produces a poison in the soil that keeps away native plants.

6. Brown tree snake

Originally from Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, it arrived on military planes in 1940s. Eats eggs of native birds.

7. Asian long-horn beetle

Arrived inadvertently from China as larvae in wooden packing crates in mid-1990s. Infects and kills healthy hardwood trees.

8. Snakehead fish

Came from Asia as aquarium fish and food in restaurants. Can get across land, attack humans and eat small animals. Takes over ecosystems.

9. Leafy spurge

Herb arrived from Russia in late 1800s as stray seed in grain seed. Takes over endangered landscapes and reduces grazing land.

10. Chesstnut blight

Fungus imported to the U.S. on Japanese chestnut trees in 1876. Has destroyed millions of hectares of the once abundant native chestnut.

11. Starlings (entire map)

Brought over from Europe by Shakespare fans wishing to fill N. America with species from his plays. Spreads wildly, taking other birds' nesting space.

The road from Rio

Canada and the environment, 10 years after the Rio Earth Summit

-*Today: Attack of the alien species

-*Monday: Fish depletion: Our great biological catastrophe

-*Tuesday: A Canadian city's bid to save the planet

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