After 9/11, national security focused so hard on stopping terrorists from entering the country that there were millions of illegal aliens busy entering the border while no one was watching.
One might think that many aliens would be noticed but they came in under the radar, so to speak, with such names as Mediterranean fruit fly, Chili thrips and emerald ash borer. These aliens are bugs, plants, fungi and microbes that have been reeking havoc on the nation’s food supply and causing billions of dollars in damages to the U.S. economy.
When the Department of Homeland Security pulled hundreds of U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors away from the nation’s entry points and into its anti-terrorism units, officials forgot, or perhaps never knew, that not all invaders and terrorists happen to be human.
An investigation by the Associated Press recently published around the country showed that national security, “was so engrossed in stopping terrorists that they all but ignored the country’s exposure to destructive new insects and infections...”
Invasive species are nothing new. While Native Americans probably introduced a few nonnative species when they came here from Siberia or wherever, the influx really started with the arrival of the first Europeans. Some of these introduced species, such as earthworms and brown trout, are so common that most people think they’ve always been here.
In their native habitat, these invaders have enemies and competitors that keep them in check. When they come, or, in many cases, are brought to a new environment most of them don’t bring their enemies and competitors with them — would you?
Thankfully, most of these introduced species can’t adapt but those that do can become pests like house guests that refuse to leave. With nothing to eat them they take over habitat and crowd out native species.
USDA inspectors are often the last line of defense from these unwelcome hitchhikers. Take the example of the emerald ash borer. Probably arriving on a wooden pallet, this exotic Asian beetle was first noticed near Detroit in 2002. It has since, according to the U.S. Forest Service, killed tens of millions of ash trees in Michigan and tens of millions more in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Quebec, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin. The loss has been devastating to forests as well as to the thousands of people who earn their livings from forest products.
This isn’t the first time an import has devastated America’s forests. In 1900 the American chestnut covered 200 million acres of forest between Maine and Florida. According to the American Chestnut Foundation, the tree was the single most important food source for a variety of wildlife and provided a livelihood for thousands of people at the same time.
Then the chestnut blight arrived on imported Asian chestnut trees. The disease was first noticed in New York City in 1904. Spreading from there in all directions, within a few decades 3 billion American chestnut trees were dead, leaving behind a drastically changed ecosystem.
While most of these invaders are accidental introductions, some were brought here deliberately. Take the common European starling. It is becoming relatively rare in its native range but it is considered a pest in the countries where is was deliberately introduced, often to control crop pests — an idea that hasn’t work out because instead of eating the pests, starlings went straight to eating the crops.
The common starling was deliberately released in New York City’s Central Park in 1890 not because of a mistaken belief that it would be beneficial but because Eugene Schieffelin, president of the American Acclimatization League, thought America needed to be colonized by every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. From 60 or so birds, we now have an estimated 200 million dirty, noisy and costly pests. Wouldn’t Old Will have been proud?
The moral of all this is that while we need our counter terrorist units, the scientists who protect us from tiny terrorists are also necessary. We can do our parts, too, by being careful with what we import, where we fish and what we plant.