Eradication Science or Eradication Snake Oil?
This piece asks common sense questions about the increasing use of wild animal eradication as a primary conservation tool, and about the foundations on which these practices rest: Why have eradications become so prevalent? Do eradications advance conservation? Are eradications based on science or snake oil packaged as solutions?
It also offers common sense about hunting ethics, and suggestions about how to fix our broken wildlife management system. I regret the offense these may cause a few good friends.
In summary: eradications – and the thinking behind them – are a growing threat to wildlife and habitat, being carried out in response to a trumped up “invasive species crisis.” This false emergency has, in my opinion, been promoted to the public by Big Wildlife: A coalition of government agencies, universities, NGOs and agrochemical giants who together have co-opted wildlife thinking and practices.
In far-West Texas, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) maintains that Desert Bighorn Sheep reintroductions must include costly eradications of many species such as wild longhorn, aoudad, burros, elk, cougar, coyotes, bobcat and foxes, if the reintroductions are to succeed. This is unsupported by science and contradicted by experience.
Obviously, Desert Bighorn Sheep should be reintroduced across far-West Texas. My family has long advocated inexpensive, low-stress, private land transplants of bighorns to best expand bighorn numbers and range. Few, if any, private landowners have more experience with bighorn; have done more for bighorn, or enjoyed greater success with bighorn than we have. Our experience has taught us that several basic TPWD tenets, policies and practices actually hurt bighorn and the many other animals necessary for their well-being.
On every TPWD property in far West Texas, all “aliens,” which are also called exotics by the department, are killed as a matter of written policy.
Before TPWD will reintroduce bighorn sheep on private lands it requires that landowners remove many species including aoudads and elk because they are “aggressive invaders” doing “harm” through “competition.”
Why would an agency that is tasked with managing wildlife resources for the common good advocate the eradication of several species of wild animals, including aoudad sheep and elk, to reintroduce one, bighorn sheep? The answer is found in invasion biology.
“Folks who ain’t got ideas of their own should be mighty careful whose they borrow…” cowboy saying
In discussing invasion biology’s origins, it is not my intention to attribute political affiliations or personal convictions to any person or group.
Ecology as a formal science was born in Germany in the early 1800s. Though visionary in many ways, it was deeply influenced by xenophobic nationalistic beliefs or a pervasive fear of outsiders, which made genetic purity a priority. As a sociopolitical policy prevalent in the 19th Century even in the United States, it favored the interests of established inhabitants over those of immigrants.
Incalculable misery came from these ideas when they were used against human groups. People have tried to remove this poisonous nativist thinking from our social and political venues, but have failed to address similar beliefs in ecology. As a result, these ideas continue to survive in ecology as an authoritarian green movement, which in alliance with big government, agribusiness and education has spread across the world as the superstitious basis for what today is called “invasion biology.”
Reflecting its nativist origins, invasion biology rests on the superstitious belief that the world is threatened by thousands of “aggressive alien invaders.” Any living thing that is not “native” is, by definition, “harmful.” While only “natives” are good, if they too are “invasive” or “aggressive,” then “natives” like “aliens” also are “unnatural” and guilty of doing “harm” to “integrity” and “ecosystem health.”
Forty years ago, the emerging environmental movement rallied around common sense concerns about the effect of poisons, bulldozers, chainsaws and rifles on habitat and wildlife.
Today, the most discussed environmental issue after climate change is invasive species. And, in a complete turnaround of focus, the solution offered by a hijacked environmental movement, which has embraced the invasion beliefs, is poison, bulldozers, chainsaws, helicopters and auto-rifles!
Since “alien, native, invasive, aggressive, unnatural, harm, integrity, eco-system health” etc. are not defined they can neither be tested, nor used to develop operating rules for practices. They are useless in predicting outcomes. But they produce what most government agencies can only dream of: full employment in an ever-growing, perpetual, unwinnable war against countless enemies, identified as they choose and redefined as they wish, resulting in a river of public funding for agrochemical companies, agencies, researchers and wildlife “managers.”
“Invasive Aliens” Defined
Let us test invasion biology as it is applied to bighorn sheep introductions in far-West Texas. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a prominent international organization dedicated to invasion biology, which is closely associated with the United Nations, offers this definition, which uses “alien” and “exotic” interchangeably:
“Alien invasive species means an alien species which becomes established in natural or semi-natural ecosystems or habitat, is an agent of change, and threatens native biological diversity.
Alien species (non-native, non-indigenous, foreign, exotic) means a species, subspecies, or lower taxon occurring outside of its natural range (past or present) and dispersal potential (i.e. outside the range it occupies naturally or could not occupy without direct or indirect introduction or care by humans) and includes any part, gametes, or propagule of such species that might survive and subsequently reproduce.” (Undated). (Emphasis is mine.)
Based on this definition, desert bighorn sheep are an “alien invasive species” and should be eradicated. Desert bighorn were extinct in Texas by 1960. Texas bighorn were said by TPWD to have been of the sub-species “Texensis.” Replacement stock is of a different sub-species, “Nelsoni” with animals gathered from present ranges in Baja California, Nevada, and Utah. Each lower taxon of these comes from a physically and genetically isolated group (a lower taxon). Each has been moved outside its past and present natural range. None could have come to Texas, or survived to subsequently reproduce in Texas, except by the direct and indirect introduction by humans. According to TPWD, none could survive without human care which includes artificial water, feed, propagation and elimination of predators including native cougar, foxes, coyotes and bobcat and “competitive” pre-existing populations of cattle, sheep, goats, horses, burros, bison, aoudad, elk and, in some instances, mule deer does, as was the case next door to Circle Ranch at the Sierra Diablo WMA. Sheep introductions are, to put it mildly an agent of change. Obviously sheep introductions as practiced by TPWD threaten native biological diversity.
Same Facts, Opposite Conclusions
This characterization of bighorn as “aggressive alien invaders” “competing” and doing “harm” is consistent with the eradication justifications of several species. However, sheep advocates need not worry because there is a catch: identical outcomes of sheep and “aliens” turn out to actually be good when caused by sheep but “harmful” if caused by an “alien”. What a relief!
This viewpoint switch is easy, because when closely examined, “alien, native, aggressive, competition, invader and harm” are empirically hollow buzzwords that are constantly redefined at the whim of those who use inflammatory, arbitrary jargon to promote the war on weeds and wildlife.
“Natives” Are Also “Invaders”
A core assumption of invasion biology is that evolution, working with the precision of a fine Swiss timepiece, eventually arrives at a “climax” stage of equilibrium where there is a place for every living thing and where everything is in its place. This climax stage, which Darwin himself never proposed, has long been disproven but is fundamental to invasion beliefs, which say that systems are so isolated and so stable that an invader can come from “just over the mountain.” Under this thinking, attacks on any number of native species can be — and are — justified:
TPWD says elk are “native” in the Guadalupe Mountains, but they are “aliens” in the Sierra Diablo Mountains, 18 miles away! At TPWD’s direction, elk eradications are expanding all across far-West Texas, as part of private ranch transplants, even though elk were once present all across this area.
Elk eradication in Big Bend Park is under serious consideration, if not already approved by the National Park Service (NPS).
Under NPS direction, native mountain goats in Yosemite Park are eradicated because they are repopulating from the wrong direction.
An endangered species, Monterrey Cypress, is being cut down 40 miles from one of only three surviving native groves. Redwoods are cut down in California because the nativists say they are a few miles away from where they “belong.”
Under the 1996 noxious weed laws of the U.S. and Canada, more than 100 species of native plants are defined as “invasive” weeds in places where they are native.
All “Aliens” Are “Harmful”
Plants and animals have always moved around. Millions of plants, plus familiar animals like bison, sheep, elk, moose, caribou, deer, wolves, bear etc., evolved on other continents and migrated across the world. Many came, some disappeared and others reappeared. There have been at least eight migrations of bear.
Because such migrations are as old as life, systems have evolved to readily accept newcomers and it turns out these enrichments of diversity usually help everything.
“Not so,” say the invasionists. Anything “alien” is by definition “harmful,” so any new organism by definition does “harm.”
But is this circular logic borne out with respect to aoudad? Are aoudads in fact doing “harm?”
Myths About Aoudad “Harm”
“Science is the systematic enquiry into the nature of phenomena, and it cannot progress without serious dedication to the truth.”
Disease: TPWD personnel say that aoudads pose a disease threat to bighorns. While aoudads and bighorns share some genetic markers, where is the evidence that demonstrates that any aoudad has ever transmitted any disease to any bighorn?
In fact, no such disease transmissions have occurred in the Sierra Diablo herd, the largest, oldest and healthiest in far-West Texas, where these animals have lived together for over 50 years.
If we were to kill every animal that might pass diseases to humans or animals, we would leave few if any species alive in the desert. And that would lead to the disappearance of bighorns.
Scientists who propose aoudad eradication because of this should offer their proof.
Aggressive Behavior: TPWD personnel maintain that aoudads are aggressive toward bighorns. On the Circle Ranch, we have aoudads and bighorns as well as elk, pronghorn, mule deer, llamas, cattle, alpaca and burros. Pictured above are aoudad and bighorn sheep grazing together on winter grass.
We often see bighorn doing this. While occasional skirmishes and roughhousing may happen within and between species, we have never witnessed nor photographed any of the aggressiveness that is supposedly so common. How does TPWD know that alleged fighting between aoudad and bighorn rams was started by aoudad?
Scientists who propose aoudad eradication because of this should offer their proof.
Sexual behavior: TPWD personnel have told me that aoudad rams have a strong harem instinct and that during the breeding season they will co-opt bighorn ewes and prevent the bighorn rams from breeding them.
In 14-years of managing both species on Circle Ranch, we’ve never seen aoudad fighting bighorn for any reason let alone for ewes…
…and never had a year where our bighorn ewes didn’t have a lot of lambs.
I seriously doubt that aoudad lust after bighorn. Scientists who propose aoudad eradication because of this should offer their proof.
Aoudad Drive Sheep off Water: Another reason TPWD gives for eradicating aoudad is that they drive sheep and other animals off of water.
Another bogus charge, from what we see. Here are pictures of aoudad and sheep sharing water, and of other species using that same water, or water nearby. We review 5,000 photos per month, and have sequences at other water points, confirming what is seen above (The photos date within 2-months, the summer of 2013).
Scientists who propose aoudad eradication because aoudad prevent other animals from drinking, should share their proof.
Here are sheep together with aoudad at water.
Here are elk at nearby water and feed . . .
. . . mule deer . . .
. . . and pronghorn nearby . . .
. . . and javelina . . .
…even golden eagles, which in all probability would also be eradication targets but for federal law.
Aoudad “Outcompete” Sheep: TPWD personnel have said that aoudad “outcompete” sheep, but we’ve not experienced that on Circle Ranch. Our aoudad herd is in balance with our habitat. If the aoudad in any number were damaging the habitat, I’ll be the first to say they should be reduced. With that said, complete extirpation of aoudads would never be my goal.
Scientists who propose aoudad eradication because of this should offer their proof.
Aoudads provide a mountain lion buffer species for bighorns. Why kill off everything else and leave bighorns exposed as the primary food source?
And, if it is necessary to reduce aoudad populations, the means should be a combination of ethical sport hunting and predators, not helicopter missions.
Anecdotes Aren’t Evidence
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human motivations, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, plants or other natural phenomena. Attributions of human traits are common in invasive species propaganda like this poster, and, based on my personal discussions, in TPWD leadership thinking. Common themes are that “invaders” are dirty, sneaky, evil, sexually aggressive, lust after native females, “outcompete”, and carry disease.
While anecdotes and hearsay evidence make for interesting conversation, no one I’ve talked with has ever seen this behavior first-hand, nor could they provide me with verified reports of the foregoing. Although I know that it is taken as proven, hard evidence is conspicuously absent, even after 50 years of experience with aoudad and bighorn in Texas.
This is normal: The false science of invasion biology often treats as hard evidence rumors and stories that reinforce negative preconceptions, interprets actual observations in ways that agree with what is already ‘known’, and routinely projects human characteristics onto plants and animals.
“Aliens” Hurt Biodiversity
Unquestionably, biodiversity loss is a real problem but its root cause is anthropogenic – human impact – not ‘invasive aliens”. Yet, the constant alarm sounded by invasion biologists selling their “invasive species crisis” is that animals like aoudad, elk, cattle, burros, predators and others “harm” biodiversity. In truth, it is Big Wildlife’s eradications of these animals and many, many plants which pose this threat. Most plant and animal “invasions” are nature trying to heal herself by restoring biodiversity to systems unbalanced by man. This healing of biodiversity is necessary for wildlife, including sheep, to recover. Biodiversity is not something that will miraculously emerge from its own destruction by chemicals, machines and guns.
Here are llamas, pronghorn and elk sharing and improving habitat at the Circle Ranch. The photo was taken in the midst of the great drought. Look at the excellent range condition.
At the Circle Ranch we have burros, horses, alpaca, llamas, goats, elk, bighorn, pronghorn, mule deer and sometimes as many as 1,000 cattle. These cattle are by the definitions of invasion biology “harmful aliens“, yet they are essential to range health because of the periodic animal impact that only herds like these can deliver to habitat.
We have more than 100 sheep at any time. This is 20-25 percent of the big herd (meta-population) that TPWD says live in the Beach, Sierra Diablo and Baylor mountains. But we have much less than 25 percent of the sheep habitat. Circle Ranch has multiples of the sheep population relative to its share of sheep habitat. All these “alien invasive” species are a reason why.
Scientists who propose eradication of any plant or animal because it threatens biodiversity should have proof.
Any Species Introduced by Humans Is “Harmful”
What is the science to justify the theory that a plant or animal spread by man does “harm,” whereas a plant or animal spread by another plant or animal does no “harm?”
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
TPWD uses public money from a variety of sources to educate Texas youth on safe and ethical hunting. The North American Game Management Model, to which every one of these organizations subscribes, says that hunters should employ the Rules of Fair Chase – giving the quarry a chance to escape – and that it is unethical to kill game frivolously or to waste game. These admirable concepts were begun by Theodore Roosevelt, and continued by Aldo Leopold and millions of conscientious sport hunters.
As any parent knows, youngsters pay more attention to examples than to advice. Arbitrary, subjective hunting ethics are unethical. Those like TPWD and others who ignore Fair Chase, taking aim on aoudads, elk, predators and other species from helicopters with automatic weapons and then abandoning their quarry set a horrible example.
They may rationalize this as management. They may reason that eradications of vermin justify mass killings. They may say that, since this is a “war,” extreme means to accomplish eradications “as efficiently as possible,” quoting the Texas Bighorn Society on helicopter missions against elk, are justified. Demonizing aoudad and “aliens” may help to ease consciences, but after all the rationalizations, obfuscations, and false pieties including “…this is a difficult but necessary task…” the ugly truth remains that they are just pouring old poison from a new bottle.
With good cause, the voting public is offended. In an era when public support for hunting is waning, and organized opposition to hunting and gun ownership is growing, TPWD of all groups should not create situations where their staff, and for that matter all hunters and landowners, can be portrayed as bloodthirsty shooters bent on the extermination of wild animals by unethical means.
The target in this gunsight isn’t an “invasive alien”. It is is Texas sport hunting, having been painted with a bullseye by those who promote, practice, or avert their eyes from unethical hunting.
These aoudad and elk would be worth thousands of dollars if allowed to grow to maturity. Thousands of landowners who will never see a bighorn sheep permit could have valuable animals which would enhance their pleasure in hunting and in wildlife viewing, and enrich the biodiversity of their animal community, benefiting plants and all native wildlife. It could make their ranch more valuable. The war on aoudad, elk and other wildlife is also an attack on private property and property rights, waged by agencies we pay for.
(Since this piece was written in 2013, eradications have increased along with restored funding of TPWD. For example, in August 2014, in the Sierra Diablo Mountains, 44 aoudad were shot with auto rifles from Texas Parks and Wildlife helicopters, by TPWD personnel, and left to rot.)
Some Questions for TPWD Scientists, Biologists and Leaders, About Your Eradications
In my opinion, calling invasion biology bad science is unfair to bad scientists because it isn’t science at all. You claim to follow the North American Wildlife Management Model, which requires basing all actions on sound science. So, as scientists doing this, please answer a few questions for those of us who cannot fathom why an agency with a $350+ million annual budget dedicated to the mission of protecting wildlife is arbitrarily eradicating entire wildlife populations.
What do you mean by “native” “alien” “harm” “invader” and “competition?” Please give definitions that allow landowners and managers to apply these terms in our own practices.
What temporal (when) and spatial (where) scales do you employ in these definitions, and what is your objective basis for using them?
Where and when are relevant to TPWD’s burro eradications at Big Bend Ranch State Park.
When: Horses and burros evolved in North America. They and their ancestors were in our systems for 50 million years – millions of years before sheep, or humans. Horses remained in our systems until 5,000 years ago. They have been back in our systems for 500 years. How long must horses have been gone before they ceased to be “native?” How long must horses have been back to qualify as “native?”
Bighorn went extinct in Texas, and remain extinct in most of far West Texas including where the Department plans to release more. Did they cease to be “native?” What are the distinctions and what science justifies your answers?
Where: We know horses were in far-West Texas. Here is an ancient horse tooth found in our Indian Cave at the Circle Ranch.
Paleobiologists say this horse resembled modern burros. Following bighorn disappearance in Texas, adjacent to the Circle Ranch you released a different kind of bighorn, one that survived somewhere else and was the closest animal you can find, calling it “native”, yet you say burros at the Circle Ranch are “aliens.” Are all bighorn “native” anywhere in Texas? You are putting them in some ranges where probably they could not have been. Why are they “native” in those spots? What are the distinctions and what science justifies your answers?
If you are using subjective definitions for the terms “native,” “alien,” “harm,” “invader,” and “competition,” how will these concepts be adequate to formulate a scientific discipline of ecological principles, management decisions and public policy?
What are your criteria for ecological “harm?” The criteria need to be measurable and objective, not just subjective speculation. They should apply to all species, irrespective of whether they are theoretically “native” or “alien.” In the absence of these criteria, on what basis are you determining which species to control or exterminate?
What are your objective, ecological criteria of “alien” species? Of “invaders?” These need to be precise so any biologist or landowner can identify “non-native” or “invader” in any ecosystem by evaluating the criteria without being told in advance what the designation is for a specific plant or animal.
It must be possible to confirm this through double-blind experiments, which do not give away in advance the definition of the plant or animal tested. For example, how does the Department distinguish between “native” and “alien” plant monocultures, between expanding “native” and “alien” populations, and the effects of “natives” and “aliens” on the ranges? If TPWD can’t give these definitions, or develop them, then its conclusions about the effects of these plants and animals are entirely subjective and its procedures are not scientific. Without such objective criteria how do TPWD employees justify actions against species you call “alien?”
How will you distinguish harmless or helpful characteristics of a new species from “invasion” particularly at the early stages? The example that comes to mind is when TPWD wiped out 100 burros that ranged on 500,000 acres of state and national parks with 100 miles of river frontage because the burros supposedly threatened water sources for bighorn. Elk and aoudad are also targets, yet, none ever existed in sufficient numbers to be a threat to anything.
What protocol does TPWD propose, or have, for determining the conservation value of new populations that have moved outside of historical ranges? We’re putting sheep in some remote mountains where, according to my research, sheep never existed and killing many animals to do it. This is considered “good,” whereas a few elk spreading by themselves back to where they always existed are “harmful?” Are all such population moves “invasions?” And if so will they be exterminated without regard to possible conservation value? Are we going to exterminate the tiny numbers of Scimitar-horned Oryx in addition to the Gemsbok eradications currently pursued by the game departments in New Mexico and far West Texas?
If the mere presence of these animals is not considered sufficient reason to act against them, what reasons are sufficient? Who will make these decisions? Under what authority are those decisions made? If there is disagreement as to whether a species is harmful how will these be adjudicated? What measures have TPWD put in place to ensure that harmless species or species that serve useful conservation purposes are not the object of harmful control or eradication measures?
If we abandon native/alien criteria in favor of invasive/non-invasive criteria or aggressive/non-aggressive criteria how will these terms be defined? Considering that population numbers of native animals swing widely, how do we justify any efforts to impose stability on these “exotic” populations?
How is the cause of “invasion” to be determined? If human impact is the only reason will the extermination of the species spreading as a result of this solve the “problem” or will this create a downward spiral of inappropriate interventions? Shouldn’t we be treating causes instead of symptoms?
How has TPWD attempted to ensure against potential conflict of interest inherent in accepting money for research from sources that may have their own agendas?
Considering the agency’s position on “aliens” how did your community of scientists justify releasing the salt cedar leaf beetle, an alien insect, in an attempt to contral salt cedar, an alien plant? (Were I to agree with your idea that exotics are always dangerous, the introduction of a new parasite would raise a red flag, and, be directly counter to efforts to eradicate exotics).
The Emperor’s Clothes
This is an invasion biology chart propagandizing for continuous preventative eradications.
- The public is unaware until it is too late (thank heavens for Monsanto and agency experts!)
- So long as the preventative eradications are in effect, conditions are green and good.
- Without continuous eradication the war is lost: the color shifts towards red and danger, and severity as projected by the ‘area infested’ axis grows rapidly.
- All along the chart timeline axis, there is the explicit need for eradications.
We again see arbitrary definitions and scales, emotionally loaded imagery and jargon: junk science propaganda for the war on plants and animals.
Most people take this at face value, trusting the scientists on whom we lavish public money to conduct themselves scientifically.
Aoudad are just one of many scapegoats of the “invasive species crisis,” sold to the public by an authoritarian coalition of self-interested regulators, agencies, universities and agrochemical giants. This group recognized that the bigger the “emergency,” the bigger the piece of the public pie they could claim for solving it. They have struck pay dirt with a never-ending, unwinnable, ever-expanding war waged against a host of enemies identifiable however they wish.
Wild animal ‘management’ according to financial self-interest, authoritarian ignorance and superstitious pseudoscience is the worst thing ever to happen to wildlife, and what is being done to plants by the invasion biologists is even worse.
Smaller is Better
Big government and big business are two faces of one coin, which seeks subsidies, protection from competition, favorable regulations, support for (and from) politicians, agencies, universities and regulators. The larger the conglomerate grows the more ineffective its individual parts become. Eventually, as can be seen in industry-after-industry, agencies in these aggregations do things contrary to the purposes for which they were established. Take wildlife: conservation began in order to protect wild animals and plants from reckless destruction. Today’s increasing conservation challenge is protecting plants and wildlife from Big Wildlife.
TPWD’s only essential functions are: 1) operating parks and 2) supplying game wardens. TPWD’s “wildlife management” practices, increasingly based on invasion biology, are a classic example of wasteful attacks on core principles. Thoughtful citizens and elected officials should come together and insist these be reduced to the lowest level possible, to protect wildlife, habitat and and the public coffers.
Wherever possible, let the private sector take over, as in this privately-funded road and erosion class at the Circle Ranch. Let’s stop undercutting private advisors with “free,” bad advice. Let people who receive services pay for what they get – and get what they pay for. Allow free markets to reward those experts whose advice produces good results and winnow out those who sell snake oil and failure.
I wish to acknowledge authors whose books and advice have helped me in writing this piece.
Allan Savory & Jody Butterfield: Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making
David Theodoropolous: Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience
P.A. Yeomans, Ken B. Yeomans: Water for Every Farm: Yeomans Keyline Plan
Bill Zeedyk: Water Harvesting From Low-Standard Rural Roads