File under Unintended Consequences


Tamarisk, a feathery green Eurasian shrub with pink flowers, was brought to the West a century ago to control erosion. It quickly became a pest along desert rivers from California to Colorado, sucking up water and choking out native willows and cottonwood. To get rid of it, federal agencies use herbicides, backhoes and chainsaws. But those methods require maintenance and are too expensive to apply on a large scale, so several years ago, the government started using bugs. A leaf-eating beetle from Kazakhstan is the tree’s natural enemy, and scientists have released it near rivers in six Western states (see our story, Beetle Warfare).

But as the bugs munch their way south, their appetite threatens the Southwestern willow flycatcher, a rare songbird. The endangered bird once relied on native trees in Arizona and New Mexico, but as tamarisk displaced them it began to nest in the newcomer trees instead. Now, enviro groups are suing the Department of Agriculture to stop the beetle’s expansion into flycatcher habitat. Managing subprime securities is less complicated than managing wildlife, it seems.

Anonymous says:
Dec 29, 2008 07:49 PM
This is an important issue, but the controversy over biocontrol and willow flycatchers ignores the fact that all locations where the SW willow flycatcher is nesting in tamarisk are also sites where there are at least some native trees present. Thus, it is very likely that native willows, cottonwoods and other suitable plants can be restored once the dominance of tamarisk is reduced; places where restoration is not possible have already lost their flycatchers. If there IS some short-term loss of habitat, many who are familiar with the biocontrol program strongly feel that the long-term benefits of tamarisk biocontrol will more than compensate. Plus, lots of birds love to eat the beetles, so the resource value of existing tamarisk vegetation is actually enhanced while the plants gradually die back over a period of many years.

There is a notion that not doing anything will somehow keep the flycatchers going, whereas in reality tamarisk will continue to invade to the point that not only willow flycatchers, but also other birds that haven't quite yet achieved the status of threatened or endangered, will be lost from these residual locations. And, since tamarisk is well-known to burn readily, wildfire risks will continue to threaten the few birds that do happen to nest in tamarisk.

Yes, Jodi, managing wildlife and wildlife habitat IS complicated, but it needs to be done and will be done much more successfully if the wildlife managers and weed managers could co-operate to promote restoration of riparian ecosystems, rather than fighting with each other, since their goals are the same.
Anonymous says:
Dec 30, 2008 08:19 AM
I hope that the groups suing will set aside some cash to spend on willow/cottonwood reforestation. And I assume, perhaps wrongly, that the Feds are also planning to re-establish them in areas where tamarisk has been eradicated...

Orion Grassroots Network
Anonymous says:
Dec 30, 2008 08:19 AM
Seems to me if we don't try to contain the tamarisk, most all western (and midwestern) waterways will become choked with that plant, water levels will drop, and native species of trees will virtually disappear. Then where will we be? Better to stem the tsunami of tamarisk, encourage repopulation of native trees, and let the sw flycatcher fend for itself.
Anonymous says:
Dec 30, 2008 09:25 AM
... where are the Cane Toads when we need them?
Anonymous says:
Dec 30, 2008 01:36 PM
Tamarisk biocontrol is not new. Lloyd Andres at USDA Albany had a box full of technical reports in the late 1970s on Buprestid beetles as safe (specific to tamarisk, not able to attack native trees or citrus) effective biocontrol agents, with research done in Israel & Pakistan. [I know it was the 1970s because as a student I got funded to do some tamarisk biocontrol research in 1981 and gave all the money back when Andres gave me the 2nd copy out of the box, and it covered everything I proposed to do and 10x more.] The roadblock to biocontrol then: beekeepers and dove hunters worried that eradicated tamarisk would not be replaced with native trees, and arguing that tamarisks were better than nothing. APHIS had no mechanism to include revegetation as part of the biocontrol program, so nothing happened for decades, and the tamarisk problem got much worse.

If you follow the Center for Biodiversity link in the article, you'll see that the lawsuit isn't about stopping tamarisk eradication. Its about insuring followup to reestablish native willows and cottonwoods (trying to get F&WS to require it for the willow flycatchers). As far as I know, "the feds" still have no planning or funding for revegetation. [I'm a fed, but not APHIS or USDA or F&WS and not involved in tamarisk.] The lawsuit may allow the feds to budget for revegetation, at least source patches of willows and cottonwoods to provide propagules to replace tamarisk stands.

Rather than managing subprime securities, I suggest that the more apt current events comparison is starting wars without planning for the followup. Revegetation isn't _that_ complicated in this case, only the politics of getting it funded are.
Anonymous says:
Dec 31, 2008 03:34 PM
As someone who has gathered salt cedar(Tamarisk)twigs from the San Juan and Animas Rivers in northwestern New Mexico;from the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District; From the Rio Grande in the Socorro and Las Cruces, New Mexico areas and from the Pecos River banks and bottoms from Santa Rosa to Carlsbad, New Mexico over a period of at least 20 years, I can say that I have seen one and only one bird nest in a Tamarisk tree. That nest was a dove nest in a tree that was approximately 12-15 feet tall South of Artesia, New Mexico in the Dayton, New Mexico area. The tree was actually at least a half mile from the Pecos River. Dayton was subsequently chosen for use of a herbicide (Arsenal) to get rid of Tamarisk in the area. From all reports the project was successful and natural springs in the area came back after the program's conclusion. I'm sure someone has had or will have objections to the use of Arsenal, but the program was well publicized and I can't recall any objections to the use of Arsenal in this instance.

Incidentally, I have studied the Tamarisk quite extensively and was therefore aware of the mentioned bugs' use. I have never observed them in New Mexico, but I did come across a larva of a boring beetle in a small shoot in small Tamarisk growth. I saw this one beetle larva and no other.

I must have "harvested" miles of new growth, shoots, and twigs from the Tamarisk through my "20" years of using it. What did I use it for? For indoor shutters, furniture and other products. I quit because age and a bad back caught up with me. If you wish to see how beautiful these products can be, just do a google on twig shutters or you might try Madera Encantada which used to be the name of my company.

Bottom line, I doubt that many Willow Fly Catchers have or are nesting in the Tamarisk. There are still thousands of acres of Tamarisk in New Mexico and I don't think the nesting habits of any bird, much less the "fly catcher" have changed toward the Tamarisk.

Surely, if the environmentalists believe loss of nesting trees are at fault, they can find some way to reestablish the willows and cottonwoods and let the Russian Olive and Tamarisk (water drinking devils that they are) go to the death they deserve. Anyone who has watched the Tamarisk knows that it has pushed the native cottonwood and willow out of our river bottoms and has escaped to the flat lands away from the rivers. Something, the willows and cottonwoods have not managed to accomplish to any degree.

As others have indicated, it might be wise for the litigious folks to spend their money in partnership with the government to eradicate the Tamarisk, Russian Olive and other bothersome plants and to reestablish the willows and cottonwoods. That is what te City of Albuquerque has done and I believe with good results. In the long run, the evil things will only end up eradicating the willows, cottonwood and other real useful plants.
Anonymous says:
Jan 05, 2009 02:41 PM
Actually, if you follow the link in the story to the Center for Biological Diversity's brief, you will find that enviro groups are NOT "suing the Department of Agriculture to stop the beetle's expansion into flycatcher habitat". They are suing DoA for failing to monitor the beetles or plan mitigation. It is too late to stop the beetles. But it is not too late to save these ecosystems or the birds. In other words, the beetles are already out there, hopefully doing a great job killing tamarisk, and the gov't needs to follow up by planting natives trees and/or stopping cattle grazing in over-grazed areas (to allow natural regrowth).

Its not enough to remove the invasive species; you have to actively restore habitat as well. Everyone but the Bush Administration knows that.