Needed: A National Center for Biological Invasions

Article excerpt

A new coordinating body is essential to the success of nonindigenous species prevention and management efforts.

Introduced organisms are the second greatest cause, after habitat destruction, of species endangerment and extinction worldwide. In the United States, nonindigenous species do more than $130 billion a year in damage to agriculture, forests, rangelands, and fisheries, as estimated by Cornell University biologists. The invasions began in the 1620s with the inundation of New England and mid-Atlantic coastal communities by a wave of European rats, mice, insects, and aggressive weeds. Today, several thousand nonindigenous species are established in U.S. conservation areas, agricultural lands, and urban areas. And new potentially invasive species arrive every year. For example, the recently arrived West Nile virus now threatens North America's bird and human populations. In Texas, an exotic snail carries parasites that are spreading and infecting native fish populations. In the Gulf of Mexico, a rapidly growing Australian spotted jellyfish population is threatening commercially important species such as shrimp, men haden, anchovies, and crabs. In south Florida, the government has conducted what the media calls a "chainsaw massacre, south Florida style": a $300-million effort to stop reintroduced citrus canker from spreading to central Florida by cutting thousands of citrus trees on private property.

A variety of local, state, and federal regulations and programs in the United States are aimed at restricting new invaders and managing and eradicating established ones. Unfortunately, however, the present response is highly ineffective, largely because it is fragmented and piecemeal. At least 20 federal agencies have rules and regulations governing the research, use, prevention, and control of nonindigenous species; several hundred state agencies have similar responsibilities. Within each state, hundreds of county, city, and regional agencies may also deal with nonindigenous species issues. A patchwork of federal, state, and local laws makes it difficult for these many agencies to manage existing invasions effectively and to prevent new ones.

During the past 20 years, government agencies and nonprofit organizations have attempted to solve coordination problems in the United States. However, these national coordinating interagency groups have been limited by their charters to specific regions or issues or have been understaffed or underfunded. Government agency and nonprofit staff working on these task forces or committees also have other responsibilities, so there are few working full-time on coordination. This lack of coordination and effectiveness as well as the dire nature of the threat necessitates a more powerful response: a new national center for biological invasions.

A step in the right direction

Because of the growing economic and environmental impacts of biological invasions, President Clinton issued Invasive Species Executive Order 13112 on February 3, 1999, calling for the establishment of a national management plan and creating the National Invasive Species Council. The council, cochaired by the secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce, includes the secretaries of Defense, State, Treasury, Transportation, and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. An advisory committee recommends plans and actions to the council at local, state, regional, national, and ecosystem-based levels.

One of the National Invasive Species Council's major responsibilities has been the development of the National Management Plan on Invasive Species, released on January 18, 2001. The plan calls for additional funding and resources for all invasive species efforts and points out large discrepancies in funding across affected agencies. The plan also identifies problems in the current system, such as a failure to assign authorities to act in emergencies and the absence of a screening system for all intentionally introduced species. …