Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Binoculars and the state of the Wild

This is a fresh newspaper column from me:

My first Zeiss-brand binoculars were so good they could pick up – in sharp focus – clumps of purple loosestrife growing in narrow marshlands on the shore of the Susquehanna River below the Council Cup promontory. From where I stood atop the rocky point, the distance was a good half mile.
It was the chance to see migrating raptors – birds of prey – that attracted me to the big rock pile a couple of miles upstream of Berwick. After all, Council Cup was much closer to home – Conyngham – than the very well known Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.
And there they were: Broad-winged hawks, American kestrels and peregrine falcons in September, bald eagles and ospreys in October and red-tailed hawks and other species in early November.
It was loosestrife that I thought of today, though, when I picked up my just-acquired copy of the new book Invasive Species and Global Climate Change.
Invasive, exotic (i.e., non-native) plants are, in themselves, bad enough for the future of our natural heritage. But we’re making things much harder to fix with our unrelenting burning of gunk fossil fuels.
Even folks who care only about the dollar bill and related economic matters should care and support efforts to take action. Here’s why: Non-native invasive plants and animals are taking over ecosystems in every state, crowding out habitat for native species and costing billions of dollars in control efforts and lost productivity. In the case of just one invasive – loosestrife – the effects of its invasion are long-lasting.
It destroys wetland habitat. Period.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers this assessment: “The impact of thriving non-native species can be devastating to the environment. Non-native plants that propagate and become invasive can have tremendous negative impacts—both ecologically and economically.  An estimated 5,000 alien plants exist in the United States, displacing native species. One example is the European purple loosestrife. It has been spreading at a rate of 115,000 hectares a year and has been blamed for reducing the biomass of 44 native plants and endangered wildlife, including bog turtles and several species of ducks that depend on the native plants.
“Loosestrife now occurs in 48 states and costs $45 million per year in control costs and forage losses.”
Our planet’s changing climate (again, don’t confuse the daily weather with “climate”), is hastening the spread of invasive plants and animals to places where they are invaders, not natives.
The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the agency that looks after our state parks and other public lands, says this: “Climate change adaptation is preparing for and responding to the impacts of climate change. While reducing greenhouse gases, a process referred to as mitigation, is essential, it won’t prevent the inevitable changes resulting from to the greenhouse gases already in atmosphere. Consequently, we need to begin developing strategies to deal with both the direct and indirect effects of climate change.”
A Google search turned up scores of papers and other documents discussing how warmer temperatures will aid and abet the spread of weedy invasive plants. One that looks at what is happening in the mid-Atlantic region can be read at
In all-day hikes across Pocono wild lands in the late 1990s, finding a clump or more of loosestrife and other invasive species like Japanese knotweed was a no-brainer. These and other alien plants take quick advantage of human activities like road-building and other development.
What can nature-watchers do to help?
-        Learn to identify invading plants and animals;
-        Take care not to spread them into new areas;
-        Report invaders to a land manager;
-        Volunteer to assist with removal or control programs.
Finally, tell the person who represents you in state and federal governments to take positive action, not to kowtow to moneyed special interests.

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