13 July 2020

The Language of Invasion Ecology

Written by: Erin Abernethy

As part of my U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) internship, I am updating a document that summarizes USFWS invasive species management in the Pacific Region. The first thing that stood out to me when I read the original report (written in 2013) was the war-like language that was used to describe invasive species management.

Species movements were described with the following language: invasion, relentless onslaught, and ground zero; for management, words such as battle, fight, control, united front, and strike team were used. When I was researching invasive species in Hawai’i back in 2013-15, I don’t remember this language (intended by ecologists to promote urgency around this issue) seeming problematic to me, as it does now. While my perception has changed, the language has not. In my review of recent USFWS invasive species projects and the scientific literature, I’ve noticed that this war-like, anti-immigrant language continues to be pervasive throughout invasion ecology.

What is an invasive species? As defined by the USFWS, an invasive species is a species that is not native to an ecosystem and which causes, or is likely to cause, harm to the environment, economy, or human health. To be considered native, a species must inhabit an ecosystem as a result of natural processes, such as through speciation (that is, one species evolves into multiple species over time) or natural movements (not human or climate change assisted or motivated). The more I think about how we define which species are native vs invasive and the language that we use to describe organismal movements, the more I think about human movements, racism, and xenophobia. How might a first-generation immigrant to the US respond to a public invasive species campaign that uses this language? How might a Native American view invasive species and removal efforts by the US Department of the Interior, an agency once tasked with the removal of Native American peoples? How is the language that we use to describe natural resource management influenced by politics, and how do these sentiments reverberate back onto society? I’m certainly not the only one thinking about this right now.

An article titled, “Am I an invasive species?” was recently forwarded to me through an invasive species listserv (named “Aliens”). Dr. Jenny Liou an ecologist and Chinese American, wrote the article describing her family, her formal ecological education, and how her thinking about invasive species has changed this Spring given the recent intersection of Asian giant hornets, COVID-19, and racialized violence in the US. I believe this quote sums up Dr. Liou’s shift in thinking, “I have yet to reconcile my training as an ecologist with my growing sense that what I learned reifies violent white norms far beyond the realm of natural resources.” As ecology and natural resource fields seek to increase diversity and inclusion, we must reexamine the language we use to describe our work. We must think about how the intent of our language differs in its impact on readers with a range of identities and how our work may be co-opted by people and political movements. I will utilize my privilege to shift the language within this USFWS report and to bring the ideas touched upon in this blog to the forefront of the minds of those ecologists and natural resource practitioners who read it.

Citations: Liou, J. 2020. Am I an invasive species? High Country News.

Photo caption: This mongoose posed for a photo while scavenging a mouse on the Big Island of Hawaii. For my master’s research, I quantified what species scavenged invasive species’ carcasses in different habitats of Hawaii.

Agency: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Program: US Fish & Wildlife Service - DFP

Location: Portland Regional Office

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