Beetles Bungled – Biological Control out of Control
Federal Campaign Aimed at Tamarisk Threatens Endangered Willow Flycatcher
Washington, DC — A highly touted federal campaign to eradicate Eurasian shrubs along western rivers has been quietly canceled, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture notice released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Effective immediately, USDA has barred further releases of saltcedar leaf beetles, the vanguard of a multi-agency biological war against the tamarisk.
The June 15, 2010 notice from USDA has been circulated to “cooperators” but, as yet, not publicly posted. It states that the “saltcedar biological control program in 13 states has been terminated” and that all permits for release of leaf beetles are hereby “cancelled.” The 13 affected Western and Midwestern states are CO, ID, IA, KS, MO, NE, NV, ND, OR, SD, MT, WA and WY.
Several tamarisk species were imported to the U.S. in the 1800s. USDA promoted planting them as drought and erosion control into the late 1930s. By 1940, government hydrologists believed tamarisks to be “water hogs,” beginning decades of hapless action against the resilient, well established plants.
The stated reason for the cancellation is “potential effects on the critical habitat of the federally-listed, endangered southwestern willow flycatcher.” In some areas the flycatcher, considered an indicator species like the northern spotted owl, has adopted the thriving tamarisks as nesting habitat. Indeed, studies identify nearly 50 American bird species that use tamarisks out of necessity, in lieu of the native trees and shrubs decimated by overgrazing, damming, and diversion of Western rivers.
There are several ironies in USDA’s abrupt about-face on leaf beetle releases:
- USDA approved releases in 2005 without a full environmental review under a “finding of no significant impact” (or FONSI) after promising to keep the beetles well away from the birds;
- According to the notice, the new ban on beetle releases will be enforced by civil and criminal penalties under the Endangered Species Act as well as the Plant Protection Act – an unusual twist given that tamarisk is one of the top federal targets for eradication; and
- The decision, which some sources say was considered official as long ago as August 2009, still has not filtered down to all USDA “cooperators” with state and local agencies announcing new leaf beetle releases as recently as this month.
“A hundred years ago, few imagined that tamarisk could spread across the West,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Five years ago, USDA liberated the leaf beetle under the illusion that nothing could go wrong.”
USDA is now in the awkward position of threatening prosecution of their partners for taking actions that it had been promoting until just weeks ago. In the meantime, the entire program is in limbo until “endangered species issues are resolved,” according to the USDA memo – a date that may never arrive.
“This episode underlines the hubris of efforts to engineer nature,” added Ruch, noting the parallel to the children’s story about the old lady who swallowed a fly. “Perhaps the best hope for the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher is for it to develop a taste for leaf beetles.”