Invading America

If you havent heard, Invasive Species are huge these days: both in the consciousness of sustainable food fans, and in the way they are ruining everything we’ve come to love (our crops, dogs, lawns, native fish, and overall ecology). I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a number of invasive species community members over the past 6 months, and I can tell you this — if you fall under the category of Feral Pig, Canadian Goose, Asian Carp, Florida Iguana, Garlic Mustard or Kudzu, stop reading this now and run and hide. Because everyone is trying to kill you.

And not just “kill you” in a casual, “bring down their numbers” sort of way. No, people are hanging out of helicopters, wielding machine guns and wearing magazine belts, doing their best to completely eradicate these animals. Obviously, I’m referring to Texas here. But they aren’t the only ones working towards a invasive-free society.  The city of Boca Grande, Florida has hired a man to drive around in a golf cart, shooting iguanas;  the state of Illinois has allowed fisherman to “fish the hell out of” (I’m paraphrasing) Asian Carp; And though I don’t think the state government had anything to do with the water skiier in full football padding, outfitted with a sword and a wolverine glove slicing fish in half as they fly out of the water (thank you YouTube), they weren’t too upset about it.

Maybe they have a point. Asian Carp were introduced to the U.S. in the 60s and have since been quickly making our little country their home. They threaten native species by out-competing our fish for the plankton that forms the base of the aquatic food chain. So in the words of our youth, they are f-ing sh*t up…and reproducing at alarming rates. One fisherman in Illinois told us when he first got out on the Peoria River a few years ago, it was so packed with carp his boat motor would be slicing through hundreds at a time. To make matters worse, silver carp can jump 10 feet out of the water, which has resulted in boaters being injured when a giant fish hits them in the face. (This is not funny. Though I can see how it would read that way.)

In December of last year, DNA tests found signs of Asian Carp above the Coon Rapids Dam upstream of Minneapolis and people are (for good reason) worrying that it will hurt the lakes’ $7 billion fishing industry. Last week, the Outdoor Heritage Council said they will recommend that MN Legislature increase legacy funds spent on fighting invasive species from the current $3 million to $5.5 million. There are also proposals to create a U of M Aquatic Invasive Species Center to keep tabs on the 180 invasive species in the Great Lakes and 140 in the Mississippi River.

So, things could be better. And I’m not even yet talking about the feral pigs who kill your dog and ruin your crops, but since you brought it up… In certain parts of Texas, there are more pigs than people. In certain parts of California, young campers are given instructions on what to do if a wild, rabid pig runs through your cabin. (In fact, feral pigs are considered the most popular game species in California). And if you’re a farmer anywhere in the South, you hire volunteers like forester Mark J. Hainds (an expert on invasive pigs, and author of Year of the Pig) to come during the middle of the night and “take care” of your problem.

“If you eat food,” Hainds explains, “You do not want feral pigs spreading into our major agricultural areas. Because, if a given property has adjacent high pig populations, most agricultural crops are rendered unfeasible.” So it’s not so surprising that Hainds’ services come in handy. “One family unit of pigs can wipe out a field of corn, peanuts or other vegetables if the unwary landowner leaves crops unprotected,” he explains.

“Feral pigs, if left unchecked, wipe out native plant and animal species. But, unlike other invasive species, these have several positive attributes that under some circumstances, may balance out the negative consequences of allowing populations to persist.” For example, they are fun to hunt. And the meat according to Hainds is “vastly preferable to the tasteless meat produced by agricultural behemoths that nearly wiped out the family farmer.”

However if you wipe out this sustainable source of tasty meat (as most places across america are advocating), it will be right back to that same tasteless stuff from the grocery store. So maybe eradication isnt the only answer? “With enough hunters and appropriate regulations,” Hainds tells us, “feral hog populations may be kept in check, and may be considered a renewable resource.”

For vegetarians whose sole purpose of their food choice is sustaining the environment, eating invasive species is about as sustainable as you can get. But for other vegetarians (like myself) who don’t want to kill animals for their own consumption, or for any reason… there’s got to be another answer to the problem. Come on, invasive species were introduced to this country at no fault of their own, but rather due to the irresponsible actions of humans (ie. feral pigs were brought here by the Spanish in the 1700s). So the current idea of killing as many as possible seems unfair. But do we have any other options to manage these numbers?

Maybe. According to Wildlife Scientist Stephanie L. Boyles Griffin of The Humane Society of the United States’ Wildlife and Habitat Protection Department: “Since every state has different laws governing the management of wild pigs, and there are currently no federal laws that prohibit the interstate trafficking of these animals, as quickly as some states implement plans in an attempt to eradicate them, others are transporting them across state lines and introducing them back into the environment.  It’s a vicious cycle and the best way to end it is to work with state and federal legislators to establish new laws and strengthen existing laws prohibiting the transport and intra- and interstate sale and commerce of wild pigs for the purpose of stocking hunting grounds and canned hunt facilities. Only then can we work towards the implementation of effective, humane, sustainable, effective solutions, such as development and use of immunocontraception vaccines to stabilize and reduce wild pig populations over time.”

Over time. But what about in the meantime? As Griffin explains, “we must oppose the use of primitive and unnecessarily cruel hunting practices in which pigs are harassed, gunned down with machine guns and/or attacked by dogs to the point of exhaustion before being killed (often being knifed to death, and in some states, hunters are allowed to kill pigs with spears).” Though it is a good point, it isn’t a solution to the current problem. The Humane Society has been implementing successful tactics to resolve the invasive Canada Geese population in both urban and rural areas. So they may just be on to something.

But at a time when even the most conscientious and sensitive Vegetarians (myself included) are still killing animals by their diet choices, who knows what the best answer is to the question of managing invasive species? Let’s be honest, fields full of corn, peanuts and any other grapes are certainly not in their native form. So essentially, we’re trying to wipe out invasives that are hurting our invasive farming practices. And if we’re gonna go there, most of us aren’t exactly “natives” either.

Regardless of what side of the coin your find yourself on, I highly recommend reading Hainds’ book. And whether or not you advocate hunting, eating meat, animal rights or sustainability, invasive species are a real and present issue, and I think we need everyone to enter the debate to find a sensible solution.

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