Monthly Archives: February 2014

Who knew that the way to control an invasive species was to import another one, or two or three?

Canadian flag in snowBefore we became deeply worried about Phragmites australis, the feather-topped scrawny-stalked, wet-footed invasive, we were concerned about purple loosestrife. Lythrum salicaria, a pretty but aggressive plant that was masterminding a takeover of our wetlands.

A native to Europe and Asia, purple loosestrife most probably arrived via soil used in the ballast of ships and released in North America in the early 19th Century. Each plant is covered in flowering stems, which can spit out 2.7 million seeds a year that are then easily dispersed by water, wind and wildlife. Its dense matted root system shrinks nutrients in wetlands and ditches, degrading habitat for wetland critters and pushing out native plants. Farmland and canals were choking on the stuff, when people were happily carting these plants home for installation in their gardens. Purple loosestrife had swept across Canada and the U.S.

And then suddenly, it seemingly vanished from people’s consciousness and the landscape. What happened?

Purple Loosestrife became one of the most successful case studies of biocontrol, the introduction of more invasives to chill out the target invasive.

400px-LythrumSalicariaBigBiocontrol may raise the hackles of the we-shouldn’t-play-God faction but consider the alternatives. Pesticides and herbicides provides only temporary, geographically limited solutions and they come with a host of side effects like poisonings, cancer-causing agents, other health impacts, environmental impacts, and encouraging the genetic resistance to them in the pest species. And chemical solutions are expensive, and keep on being expensive.

In contrast, natural enemies can be self-sustaining and self-dispersing agents. They don’t require repeated applications and they hold out the hope that they will adjust their population size to that of their target species, and moreover they are unlikely to cause cancer. Once introduced, they do their job and that’s the end of it.

Still, biocontrol has been the subject of considerable controversy. Biologists have been getting much better at it, as the rules and regs for its application have become increasingly restrictive and uniform when once they were chaotic, subject to change and lacking any clearly understood national or bi-national models.

Asian Carp, introduced to deal with algae in fish farms, is an example of biocontrol gone badly, badly wrong.

Invasives typically arrive without their co-evolved predators, parasites and pathogens or in the case of weeds, herbivores. Without these checks, populations can spread rapidly.  Biocontrol requires locating the natural enemies of these target pests, evaluating the likely results of importing them, confining them for a period in quarantine and testing whether they would be likely to harm non-target species.

None of this is easy. Evaluating the ecological impacts of introducing a species requires a great deal of data that has to be garnered from the host country over many years. An understanding of the life history, dispersal, phylogeny and behavioural effects are necessary. The difficulties in getting this information can warp the data such that a disproportionate amount of info can be  learned about the particular predator/target species relative to the broader category of predator/non-target species.

Moreover, quarantine conditions can hardly replicate the complexity of interactions in the natural environment. Confining critters to petri dishes or cages obviously changes their behaviour. Under these conditions, predators have been known to go after sub-optimal prey (a form of stress eating perhaps), which can exaggerate the impact an introduced predator species might have in the wild, creating false positives.

Potential consequences for non-target species are difficult to evaluate, population dynamic data difficult to come by. The closer taxonomically the non-target species is to the target species, the greater the risk of unintended consequences. And even comprehensive studies are unlikely to identify how or whether the predator species will undergo evolutionary or adaptation changes as a result of being introduced to a new environment.  Unfortunately,  looking for trouble after the introduction of a biocontrol program can be extremely difficult. Throw in the unknown impacts of climate change, and getting a successful program looks doubtful.

How extraordinary then is the success of the biocontrol program for purple loosestrife. Research began in 1995, and by 1992, the Canadian and U.S. governments had approved the release of two European leaf-eating beetles, Galerucella calmariensis and Galerucella pusilla plus a root feeding weevil, Hylobius tranversovitattus.

Following a period of inactivity in the fall and winter, the leaf-eating bugs feed on the leaves as they emerge in the spring. They mate and lay their eggs on the leaves. After hatching, the larvae move on to eating the tips, which prevents them from growing or producing flowers.

The root-feeding weevil either survive the winter as dormant adults in the leaf litter or as larvae in the roots of the purple loosestrife. Overwintering adults feed on leaf and stem tissue. Eggs are deposited in the stem just above ground level at the rate of one or two a day. A single female will live two or three years and lay about 300 eggs.  Overwintering larvae begin to feed as the soil warms up. They then complete their development, pupate and emerge as adults in mid to late summer although some larvae may take more than one full summer to complete their development inside the root.

The purple loosestrife program has been deemed a remarkable success.  Vast stands have been wiped out without the introduction of chemicals or unintended impacts on non-target species.

Unfortunately phragmites doesn’t lend itself as easily to biocontrol, being too similar to native species, that would run the risk of becoming the prey of a predator species that was introduced. Phragmites should not be composted, root fragments (rhizomes) and seeds should be disposed of in the garbage, and stands of it should be avoided so as to reduce the risk of spreading seeds. This is a no-fun plant.

Separating critters into native and invasive categories implies a before and an after, which in turn leads us to expect that if only we could pluck out the invasives, we will find the world the way it was. But nature is always dynamic and disturbances are ongoing and inevitable.

In the old days, biocontrol was primarily directed at ridding agricultural or other “useful” land of pests. Now we have moved on to wanting to save the natural environment from introduced species. This is much more difficult to do, and layers on more morally taxing issues about how much meddling we’re prepared to do.  Fortunately, biologists know much more about the complexity of the natural world than they used to.  This is important work and we should provide  them with the means to do it.

Biological Control of Purple Loosestrife Program, Illinois Natural History Survey

Biological Control of Purple Loosestrife, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Biological Control of Purple Loosestrife, Richard A.Malecki, Bernd Blossey, Stephen D Hight etc.

Invasive Phragmites, Ontario Invading Species Awareness Program

Furthering Harper’s Stealth Agenda, the Pipeline Agency is Grabbing the Fisheries File

Prime Minister Harper’s squeezing of environmental protections continues in its characteristic drip, drip fashion. In the latest example the National Energy Board, responsible for the approval of pipelines, is poised to assume some powers to protect fish and fish habitat, from Oceans and Fisheries Canada in accordance with a Memorandum of Understanding posted on the NEB website.

Graffiti and iceLimiting the regulatory agencies overseeing a project might seem like a admirable move towards increased efficiency that will no doubt please the proponents of energy projects, but it raises serious questions about whether the NEB has the resources and willpower, unsullied by conflicting agendas, to responsibly protect the fish that get in the way of energy projects.

The Harper government talks relentlessly about balancing the budget and lowering taxes—that’s what  we got when the Conservatives won their majority, with 38% of the popular vote. What the government hasn’t admitted to is its assault on science and the weakening of environmental protections, which trundle along behind its cosseting of the oil sands sector. The closing and consolidated of the science libraries, the muzzling of scientists, the abandonment of the Experimental Lakes Area, the cancelling of the long-form census: this pileup suggests that the Conservative government is quietly suppressing, reducing and sidelining evidence-based, science-based challenges to its economic hegemony. This is part of Harper’s stealth agenda.

The Memorandum of Understanding, dated December 16, 2013, states that (for now) DFO retains responsibility for issuing permits under the Fisheries Act (permits that allow parties to undertake an activity that results in serious harm to fish) until such time as the two departmental bodies “propose regulations that would prescribe the NEB as a person or entity who would be authorized to issue Fisheries Authorizations.”

It’s an open question whether, as a result of departmental cuts, a greatly truncated DFO could ramp up a robust defense of fish and fish habitat that unfortunately find themselves in the path of an energy project. How less likely would the NEB be to do so, given the agency’s very different mandate.

The NEB is a quasi-judicial body that conducts hearings and issues rulings, enforceable by law, regarding pipelines, energy projects and trade. Its jurisdiction stretches over 71,000 Km of pipelines and 1,400 Km of international power lines. Fifty environmental, social-economic, land and engagement specialists carry out the NEB mandate that stretches over the NEB Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012, the Canada Labour Code and the Canadian Standards Association for occupational safety. They also work with the Transportation Safety Board for accident investigations. And soon they’ll be getting the fisheries file to look after.

But just how deep can their expertise possibly be?

It looks like the government has sacrificed expertise on the altar of expediency. The guiding principles behind the NEB/DFO Memorandum include directives “to facilitate effective and efficient use of government resources in order that regulatory decisions are made in a timely manner by applying a one-project one-review approach; and to promote clarity and consistency of the regulatory process.”

But should the inevitable conflicts between development and the environment be buried in one over-stretched, Medusa-headed federal agency?

tracksOurs is a big country with a lot of water around and in it. DFO has, or had 10,000 employees. According to a secret document released under an Access to Information Request, DFO is facing cuts of $96.5M by 2015 affecting coast guard search and rescue; ice-breaker services; libraries; marine communication, rescue boats; buoy tending; species-at-risk Atlantic salmon production facilities; biodiversity and fish hatcheries; conservation and protection offices; lifeboat services; control surveillance; funding for the Northwest and Nunavut Territories; Arctic ports; the Experimental Lakes Area;  the Atlantic Lobster Sustainability Measures Program; the At-Sea Observer Program; the restructuring of habitat and ecosystem management; and finally, contaminant research especially the elimination of in-house research programs on the biological effects of contaminants, pesticides, oil, gas and diluted bitumen. This will be replaced with a small advisory group.

Some of these concerns are moving to other agencies. In other cases changed circumstances justify these cuts—a 90% drop in the number of serious cases of non-compliance by foreign fishing vessels since 2005 for example.  But in other respects, the DFO budget should be increased in acknowledgement of stepped up marine traffic, technological changes, climate change impacts, and extended shipping seasons. These increased demands on DFO’s services were noted in briefing notes to DFO Deputy Minister Matthew King as quoted in a PostMedia News article by Mike De Souza.

Harper’s slash and burn approach is compounded adversely by changes to the Fisheries Act that were buried inside the 2012 omnibus budget. These eliminated DFO’s responsibility to protect all fish and their habitat and replaced it with a mandate to protect fish that serve some recreational, commercial or Aboriginal purpose. (You can imagine how the federal government might find this jurisdictional vacuum useful when developing the vast remote pristine regions of the Arctic, where there are bound to be  some fish that don’t serve any one’s interests.)

DFO does not deliver frontline services to Harper’s tax-paying base. In the short term the DFO cuts are visible only to those people directly involved in Canada’s waters and to conscientious environment watchers. But Canadians are responsible for about 23% of the world’s fresh water, and we’re bordered by three oceans. We are a marine country that requires a lot of looking-after and we’re not getting  it.

Sources for this blog are noted below.

Memorandum of Understanding between the National Energy Board and Fisheries and Oceans Canada for Cooperation and Administration of the Fisheries Act and the Species at Risk Act Related to Regulating Energy Infrastructure

NEB begins slow takeover of DFO’s Fisheries Act Powers, ipolitic

DFO Cuts

Harper Cutting More than 100 Million Related to Protection of Water, by Mike de Souza, PostMedia News

Changes to the Fisheries Act, June 29, 2012

2012-2013 Departmental Performance Report, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Learning Bird and Gaining the Key to the Natural Universe

Winter RobinBird watching is trophy hunting (not killing, obviously.) It’s a competitive sport although birders don’t talk about that.  It usually involves taking pictures (with a tripod, telescopic lenses and a sore back), checking off lists, and identifying exotic migrants—assuming you can identify that pesky eye ring or count the stripes on its tail feathers as your bird takes off.

In contrast, bird language is acquired close to home, no binoculars necessary, and is the ticket to the vast complex universe of the natural world.

Young_ROBIN_cvr_spineThe best birders (who know at least a restaurant level of Bird) spot their subjects by listening first and then they site it. What they see is a bird doing something, not idly strumming his vocal chords while he takes in the scenery.

Bird is the route to a deep understanding of the ways in which forest critters take account of one another as they conduct their everyday survival.

What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young holds out the hope that ordinary people studying very ordinary birds in a small defined neighbourhood, perhaps focusing on an area as small as 50 yards across and 20 feet high, (the territory of a small bird) can pick up the most ancient of languages, one that was undoubtedly crucial to our survival as hunters and gatherers and possibly fundamental to the development of the human brain.

Native Americans could spot advancing armies miles off by “bird plows”, a sudden sideways, and herd like exit from the bush of birds fleeing an unusual threat.

“Using the birds as a first alert greatly improved our odds of finding two wolves (without radio collars) in a million acres of wild country,” writes Young. “If the birds were busy eating grasshoppers in the cold morning we moved on, but if they were gathered low in the trees and acting somewhat skittish, we paused, because ravens gathered in a focused group could be protecting a carcass and keeping their eyes out for other nearby scavengers, including wolves.”

Birds operate on a very lean energy budget; of course all critters do, but birds especially, which puts a premium on their calibrating exactly the right amount of effort necessary to achieve a given result. A quick get away can be costly, even if successful, as the bird may succumb to exhaustion in the end anyway.

“Pell-mell flight might also put the flying sentinels in jeopardy of predators who have sized up the situation as a good wake-hunting opportunity and are moving in for the kill. Better to stay home and stay organized,” reasons Young.

Birds don’t just fly away at the sight of a cat. They judge from its behaviour whether it’s stalking, or moseying home to its canned fish and a cushion, and they have calls to match.

Birds have calls that distinguish among lowest of the low, the egg robbers, corvids, jays, raccoons, weasels, snakes, coyotes, wolves, and birds of prey, and whether these dangers are actually worth worrying about at any particular moment.

“A tense, stressed coyote moving faster than usual in her efforts to feed those whining pups back in the den will elicit a stronger set of alarms than the more relaxed coyote, maybe responsible only for itself, whose movements seems less anxious and stressed.”

Birds, because they have such complex vocalizations, acute eyesight and excellent vantage points (ground feeders excepted) from which to observe, are the inter- and intra species news broadcasters. And everyone else equally dependent on their own lean energy budgets are guided by the birds, (unlike the bounding labs tearing off through the underbrush with never a worry about their next meal.)

These opportunistic interdependencies constitute a complex society.  Birds will squirm around in anthills hoping to annoy the insects that will then release formic acid and drive the lice from their feathers. Magpies follow deer because they kick up the dirt exposing insects. And herding animals are great sources of ticks and a free ride. Red-tailed hawks hang around highways, travelling along with the vehicles taking advantage of their noise to disguise their own.

Chickadees have some of the most complex alarm calls, matching the number of their “dee, dee, dees” to the level of threat, if sometimes straying from the truth.

“Chickadees sometimes produce false alarms, causing the gullible to fly away and leave that much less competition for food. This behaviour indicated that the chickadees can make fine distinctions between fake and real alarms.

“I’ve seen a chickadee sitting right in front of me—pumping away, with its bill wide open—and heard its call coming to me from over there, many feet away, in midair: nothing less than ventriloquism. In my experience this phenomenon occurs when the predator is a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk.”

Bird alarms can also have an unintended effect. “Hearing an alarm for another predator, an accipiter [hawk] glides in that direction, knowing that the birds are distracted by the first predator, making the second predator’s odds just a little better.”

Meanwhile back in the nest, the squawking of chicks is a dinner bell for corvids, peregrines, cats, raccoons and foxes. “Establish a post near a hawk’s nest during nesting season, and you will be astonished by how often the parents fly in with a songbird to feed their young. I’ve watched a Cooper’s hawk deliver a bird to one of its own two or three chicks three times within half an hour.”

Jon Young’s book is an impressive inspirational guide to getting to know the most common backyard species, and he claims you don’t need binos. By choosing what he calls a sit spot and recording what you hear, including truck noises, airplanes, slamming doors, barking dogs, sitting there quietly every day, preferably early in the morning so not too far from home, you will eventually, with help from audio guides and a few online lessons, understand the patterns of behaviour of individual birds in your sit spot universe.

You’ve first got to figure out what the baseline, normal situation is, the dimensions of a given bird’s territory with its food sources, hiding places and vantage points. You’ll learn how to avoid taking deliberately quiet steps that could be interpreted as stalking behaviour, while also not causing unnecessary noise.

You’ll learn about the vocalizations: songs, companion calls, male-to-male aggression, adolescent begging and alarm. Understanding the baseline will tell you what the quiet means. “If something alerts one towee, it will freeze and a split second later so will all the others. Then they may casually move—almost fade—into denser, safer cover. No noise whatsoever, no big production, but they are gone. It could be a minute or more before the song sparrows look up.”

If you find a nest, back off quietly so as not to attract the attention of predators. Sit with your back to the brush so you can hear anyone coming.

We may not have any need to anticipate an advancing cavalry charge coming down our driveway, but learning Bird, however imperfectly, will attach us more to the natural world and that’s a good thing.

Jon Young’s website, offers Bird Language Basics, a free email course, and DVDs.