KODIAK — Some topics are easy to write about. It is easy to look up the life cycle of an animal and describe its animal superpowers. I love doing that because I am always amazed by how nature solves the multitude of challenges life offers in so many different ways. Other topics are more difficult; usually those are the topics that involve human interactions with the environment and our ethics in deciding what is desirable and what is not. One of those areas is the complex topic of invasive species, native species and introduced species. Wikipedia offers a whole glossary of invasion biology terms, but the main message of the text is that the terminology is confusing and inconsistent. Most intriguing to those who are following the news in our country is that many of these biological terms are the same as used in politics and applied to people.
Currently in the news cycle is our president’s verbal battle with four women in Congress, all of them US citizens, and only one of them not born on American soil. As such, by definition of the word “native,” three of these women are native to the US. Nonetheless, our understanding of the term “Native American” is limited to members of indigenous peoples of America, which means that only two percent of US citizens are Native; the president is not among them. As a person born in Europe, I was considered an “alien”, before I became “naturalized.” I have always found those words somewhat strange; it made me feel like I had green skin and a crashed flying saucer hidden in some secret patch of woods. Also interesting is that non-integrative use of language and behavior in a country that is historically built by immigrants. Most Americans today are proud of their own roots in other cultures. After all, that is what makes up America’s diversity. In a country, as in nature, diversity is equivalent to adaptability and thus strength.
A native plant or animal is one that historically has populated a given habitat. Those that thrive in the same neighborhood as the natives without causing them any harm are the non-native species. Some of them are introduced by humans, either accidentally or on purpose.
A species is considered invasive or called a pest when it does better than the native species and bullies the natives out of their original habitat. However, some native species are also called invasive, if they suppress other species that share the same habitat preferences.
In plants, you have your Kodiak natives, such as lupin, salmonberry and cow parsnip (pushki), and then you have introduced species, such as the raspberry, and invasive species, such as orange hawkweed or foxglove, which will take over an area if allowed to flourish. However, the definitions are vague and some people refuse to declare battle against a pretty flower just because it is easy to grow.
The discussion about native and invasive species is not complete without taking a change in the environment into consideration. For example, a species can increase in numbers and expand its range if the temperatures change in its favor. In Kodiak, spruce trees have slowly expanded their range, which is considered a natural range expansion. Sea otters have become much more common, which may be attributed to a series of warm winters where pup mortality has been low. A change in the environment can boost the population of a native species or expand its range, or it can give an invasive species the advantage over the natives. Our attention on these changes depends on whether we consider the species undergoing them as favorable to our needs or not. I have followed the news about gray whales and California sea lions starving from lack of food in their feeding ranges, as well as last year’s lack of pollock in the usual Bering Sea fishing grounds, but there has not been much complaint about this year’s bumper salmon returns in Bristol Bay (other than fishermen being sore and exhausted)! My point is that change can be bad or good, but our attempts at regulating change are skewed and reactive.
As oceanic species expand their range northward with warming temperatures and some of the cold adapted species such as walruses and polar bears are threatened by the loss of their habitat, so are humans. Some countries are threatened by sea level rise, others by the drying up of their sparse water reservoirs. This will increase conflict and resource wars. Border walls and imprisoning refuges will not solve these problems, it just distracts from the causes.
I grew up as the child of parents who spent their childhood during the rebuilding of Germany after World War II. I was taught that the German Hitler regime was made possible by people following faulty propaganda and failing to resist the wrongs of their government. I am now a US citizen and wonder if my grandparents heard similar news about the camps Jewish people were taken to as we can find about Mexican migrant detention centers. Am I now the citizen that watched as the world turned in a wrong direction?
Alaska is a place of amazing nature. Perhaps because we are sheltered from the hubbub of crowds and the buzz of big cities, it is easier to see the changes around us and contemplate what is to come. The question is if America is ready to vote this time or if all the people who are frustrated by politics still think that not voting is the way to solve the problems our planet is facing. If you do care about democracy but don’t know the names of the top six presidential candidates for the next election, please take the time to find out who they are. We live in an amazing country based on an amazing idea of democracy. It is our job to engage in it, and it is as simple as knowing who we are voting for. You may still not get what you wanted, but at least you don’t become an instrument in driving change in the wrong direction.