As an individual or as a community, we are always being asked to do this or buy that to help the environment; and the list is long. Use reusable bags, buy reusable straws, clean up our neighborhoods, clean up our oceans, buy reef-friendly sunscreen, get a tune up, or better yet, buy hybrids or electric cars to help combat the effects of climate change. DO, DO, DO. What if you were asked NOT to do something instead and have it make a major difference in our natural world, would you consider it? When it comes to invasive species, that's exactly what you should do. This means, Do NOT buy plants that are not native to your region, do NOT release pets or plants into the environment, and do NOT spread seeds from invasive species to other natural areas. Pretty easy to do, right? Unfortunately, because people have made the choice to DO all of the above, we now have invasive species from all over the world outcompeting our native plants and animals causing major problems within our native ecosystems.
Above images are just a few examples of invasive species plaguing North America. Click on the caption for more information. There are literally thousands more. So what happened? How did all they get here?
For starters, terrestrial plants are often brought in by nurseries and sold to the public for private or commercial gardens. This is typically due to demand from gardeners. When they escape, there is usually nothing to keep them in check, like there is in their native territory, and they take over, displacing native plants. Is this a big deal? Oh you bet it is – A VERY BIG DEAL. These newcomers weren't supposed to be here, therefore, they are not compatible with the insects and birds that have been here for thousands of years and have co-evolved with species that supply them with the food and shelter they've always depended on. Here's where you do NOT support nurseries that fail to supply customers with native plants and who knowingly sell invasive species. That's easy, right? Check.
Next up is aquarium and terrarium species. This is a big one. We humans can be described as a water loving species, but we sure have a funny way of showing affection for something we use and enjoy as much as rivers, lakes and ponds. By purchasing, then releasing aquarium species or water garden plants into a waterbody, you are likely dooming several native populations. Red-eared sliders are a good example (see above). They are a mid-western species that becomes invasive outside of its native range. Once introduced to a pond or lake, this extremely aggressive turtle soon takes over and displaces native turtles. Since they are long-lived, impacts from a single release can be devastating.
Aquatic plants (and animal larvae) are transported from waterbody to waterbody mainly by boats and fishing tackle. If we clean, drain and dry our boats and rinse off tackle before heading to another waterbody, there would be no need for boat inspections at boat launches. Our rivers and lakes would be thriving instead of struggling with the introduction of Brazilian elodea, hydrilla, milfoil, quagga and zebra mussels, to name a (very) few.
Don't forget about those reptiles people simply must have in their homes until they are no longer convenient or the right fit for the household and are released. There are personal health issues including salmonella risk with these animals, but nothing compares to unimaginable havoc they wreak on our ecosystems. The Florida Everglades are facing one of the most devastating impacts an ecosystem has ever experienced in this country due to pythons being released into the wild. Let's not forget about the green iguanas taking over south Florida causing so much damage to gardens and landscapes that residents are now allowed to kill and eat them, as long as they kill them humanely. How can this even be a thing? Because people tend to make very bad decisions about how to dispose of pets and plants, instead they do what's easy, quick and inexpensive; open the back door or take a quick trip to the lake. What's the solution here? DON'T do it!
Lastly, if you make sure you or your landscaper (if you have one) ensure you are not transporting invasive species from one space with invasive species to one without, that would be huge! By rinsing mowers and checking shoes and pants for seeds, you have avoided a new infestation. Another easy fix.
Let's summarize: How do we begin to fix this mess we've gotten ourselves into? Since humans are a major part of the problem, humans must solve it. By now, some species like Japanese knotweed cannot be eradicated, pythons in the Everglades are probably here to stay as well, so professionals must manage these species. However, we can all stop bringing them into the country by not purchasing them. Simply stop buying them! Never, EVER release aquatic plants or animals into waterways, always surrender them to a pet store or donate them to a school. If you can't find a pet store who will take them, or a place to donate them, find a home for them on Craigslist or Facebook. Whatever you do, DON'T RELEASE THEM INTO THE WILD!
Of course there are aquatic invasive species coming in regularly from other countries in the ballast water of ships. The Great Lakes have seen at least 186 invasive species enter waterways in ballast water. Efforts to curb new infestations coming into the lakes are underway, but there remains a constant threat and a real concern, ask any Great Lakes resident.
So let's look at what you don't need to do again one more time:
• Don't buy invasive (or non-native) plants for your garden or animals for your house
• Don't release plants or animals into nature, they don't belong there
• Don't bring home any seeds on your clothes or shoes from a hike or even a friend's yard, or allow your landscaper to bring anything from another yard to yours.
Something you actually can and should do, is report any invasive species being sold in your local nurseries to your state Department of Agriculture immediately. That's just a phone call. You can do that, right?
See? By doing almost nothing (in this particular case), you're helping solve a major crisis in North America. Nice work!
Every February 5th, we celebrate our western population of monarch butterflies. They have a day set aside just for them, as it should be. What does western population of monarchs actually mean? Settle in for a quick lesson on monarch populations, migration and their status in North America.
There are three separate populations of monarch butterflies (all the same species):
First, there is the eastern population that is well-known for their epic migration from Mexico in the spring up through central and eastern United States and into Canada. After laying eggs across the country (up to five generations), the last generation (that has never been to Mexico) makes that incredible migration south to the oyamel fir forests in central Mexico. How they manage this, is still a mystery, but hopefully we'll find in the near future exactly how they accomplish this incredible journey. Unfortunately, overwintering sites in Mexico that support the eastern population has declined up to 95% since the 1990s, so this population is in big trouble. Not only is their migration threatened, but also their overwintering grounds in Mexico. A double threat. Update: The final population numbers are in from the overwintering sites in Mexico, and the numbers are down 53% from last year. Visit the MLMP website and read Karen Oberhauser's assessment of the situation. Also learn more about how you can help.
Second, there is the mostly non-migratory population in south Florida that sticks around all year. There isn't enough data to say for sure if they are 100% non-migratory, tagging data may indicate otherwise, but from what we know, they hang out in Florida all year.
Finally, there is the western population of monarchs. This population migrates from overwintering sites along the California coast in spring east to the Rocky Mountains. Again, several generations later, the last generation migrates in the fall back to the coast. Now for the bad news. The western monarch population is also in trouble. Big trouble. It would be nice to celebrate, uninhibited, our beloved orange and black butterfly, but we just can’t. Instead, we need to reflect on their critically low numbers (down 86% since the 2018 count) and figure out ways to help them. This is one of those, we made this mess, now let's clean it up scenarios.
Due to several factors, including habitat loss, pesticide use, loss of overwintering sites, climate change, and others (all created or exacerbated by humans), we are now faced with losing one of our most iconic insects. Last year, Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (Xerces), reported for the second year, historically low numbers of overwintering monarchs along the California coast. This data prompted a second call to action for western monarchs. This is really bad news. However, rather than stew and feel helpless, let's look ahead...
It's 2020, a new year, with new possibilities and a brighter outlook all around, so let's see if the collective "we" can help this species rather than watch it go extinct like so many other species we've said goodbye to in recent years.
Here's what we can all do:
First, plant milkweed. That's a big one. Just visit the Xerces seed finder website to locate seed vendors in your state or visit your local nursery and request native milkweeds.
Second, plant native flowers that are available to migrating monarchs in early spring and late fall. They need these vital food sources when they leave their overwintering sites and when they return to them.
Third, stop using chemicals such as round-up on your weeds. This kills many plants in its path and is terrible for not only monarchs, but other pollinators as well.
Fourth, protect overwintering sites in California. Without these sites, monarchs can't make it through the winter and therefore, cannot migrate in the spring.
Last, get involved! If you're a California resident, you can help Xerces by counting overwintering monarchs along the California coast. Just download the Monarch SOS app and go to Report, then select Xerces Western Monarch Count. You can also participate in the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper which allows you to report monarchs and milkweed throughout the year.
If we all do our part and help our western monarch populations, next year, there will hopefully be cause for celebration.
On a very sad note: Our hearts go out to the families of the slain monarch conservationists from Mexico, Homero Gomez Gonzalez, manager of the El Rosario butterfly sanctuary, and Raul Hernandez Romero, a tour guide at the sanctuary. Both were champions for monarchs and will be terribly missed by the entire monarch community as well as the monarchs that will undoubtedly suffer in their absence. May these fine men rest in peace and those responsible for these unspeakable acts be brought to justice.