(Part 4 of a four-part series. See also The animal issue that made Donald Trump a presidential candidate; How an ant doctor came to be driving public policy; and How the Twin Towers fell on animals too.)
In the first decade after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 there was little opposition to mass killing of alleged invasive species from most of the environmental community, and for that matter, from most of the animal rights and humane communities.
Many of the biggest environmental organizations became preoccupied with human immigration issues, including the ecological effects of increased human population on resources and habitat.
Animal advocacy organizations found advocating for dangerous dogs, often acquired and kept as a perceived self-defense measure, to be a path of much less resistance, and greater appeal to donors, than advocating for anything branded “alien,” let alone invasive, amid the most intense climate of fear of foreigners to afflict the U.S. since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 lead to mass internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry.
Among the hottest environmental issues in the first years after September 11, 2001 was the question of how fencing the U.S. border with Mexico––a proposal discussed long before Trump ever mentioned it––might affect jaguars and pronghorn, the former critically endangered and the latter long declining. But the public did not seem to care very much about the possible loss of jaguars and pronghorn, no matter how much jaguar and pronghorn conservationists campaigned.
The Nature Conservancy had already been directly involved in trying to prevent illegal immigration from Mexico, as the Gray Ranch, a 321,000-acre former Nature Conservancy property in southern New Mexico, includes trails often used by illegal immigrants. The Gray Ranch was turned over to the Animas Foundation in 1993.
The Sierra Club, founded by the misanthropic John Muir in 1892, was deeply and bitterly split by debate over a series of failed member resolutions opposing immigration in terms of which Muir himself would probably have approved.
Global warming & human immigration
Ecological issues associated with human immigration are real and must be addressed. Indeed, they are probably only beginning. The most recent projections of the effects of global warming suggest that huge movements of humanity are inevitable, as result of droughts, floods, wildfires, rising seas, possible famines, and wars, some already underway, resulting from changing environmental conditions.
The human movements will be only one symptom of ecological changes that are already starkly evident in the receding snowcaps on most high mountain ranges, worldwide. Species evolve in response to habitat, not points identified by a Global Positioning System, and the habitat that many North American species prefer is already several hundred miles north of where it was just a few decades ago.
Nature will decide where species belong
Climate change and ecological transformation are inevitable, even if the global warming trend is reversed well short of the worst-case scenarios. In view of that reality, rigidly defining “native” v.s. “non-native” species is an exercise in futility, no matter what names are used for them.
Nature, not human intervention, will decide where animals and plants “belong” and thrive.
Some leaders of the mainstream environmental movement have begun to recognize this, for example longtime Nature Conservancy chief scientist Peter Kareiva, who has urged a complete rethink of Nature Conservancy policies toward preserving nature. Kareiva has, however, spoken more forcefully in favor of accommodating human activities in wildlife habitat than against Nature Conservancy purges of “invasive” species.
“The way the public hears about conservation issues is nearly always in the mode of ‘[Beloved Animal] Threatened With Extinction,’” wrote Whole Earth Catalog founding editor Stewart Brand in a recent essay for Aeon entitled “We are not edging up to a mass extinction,”
“That makes for electrifying headlines,” Brand continued, “but it misdirects concern. The loss of whole species is not the leading problem in conservation. The leading problem is the decline in wild animal populations, sometimes to a radical degree, often diminishing the health of whole ecosystems. Viewing every conservation issue through the lens of extinction threat is simplistic and usually irrelevant,” Brand opined.
No “extinction crisis”
“Many now assume that we are in the midst of a human-caused ‘Sixth Mass Extinction’ to rival the one that killed off the dinosaurs 66 million years ago,” But we’re not. The five historic mass extinctions eliminated 70% or more of all species in a relatively short time.
“The frightening extinction statistics that we hear are largely an island story,” Brand explained, “and largely a story of the past, because most island species that were especially vulnerable to extinction are already gone.
“Life becomes different”
“The island ecosystems have not collapsed in their absence,” Brand emphasized. “Life becomes different, and it carries on. Since the majority of invasive species are relatively benign, they add to an island’s overall biodiversity.
“The ecologist Dov Sax at Brown University in Rhode Island points out that non-native plants have doubled the botanical biodiversity of New Zealand. Ascension Island in the south Atlantic, once a barren rock deplored by Charles Darwin for its ‘naked hideousness’, now has a fully functioning cloud forest made entirely of plants and animals brought by humans in the past 200 years,” Brand continued.
None of this––as Brand emphasized––in any way detracts from the present threats to elephants, rhinos, lions, tigers, and leopards, and many other large, charismatic megafauna.
What is clear, however, is that miscasting the issues afflicting these species as a “biodiversity crisis” or “extinction crisis” is not helping the species in most need of help, and killing other species just because they may not fit someone’s definition of “native” is not really helping most endangered species, either.
The problem before us is largely just human intolerance of other species who eat livestock or crops, and the continuing existence of markets for other species’ body parts, whether poached, shot as hunting trophies, or purged in the name of maintaining “native” purity.
Against that reality, bio-xenophobia looks more and more like just another symptom of plain old-fashioned xenophobia: the fear of anyone or anything exotic or alien, invasive or not.