Stateline Story

Alien Species: Another Costly State Headache

  • December 17, 2002
  • By Sara Scavongelli

No state is immune to invasive species the plants, insects, animals or diseases introduced to North America from somewhere else that cause economic or environmental harm. A recent Cornell University report estimates that these unwelcome invaders, also called invasive aliens, exotics or bio-pollution, run up to a $137 billion tab each year in U.S. environmental damage and control costs.

The federal government has made little progress implementing a national action plan, according to an October report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, in many cases leaving state agriculture and wildlife officials as the first line of defense. Experts say more invasive species are on the way because of accelerating travel and trade as well as feeble regulatory barriers.

State officials see their efforts complicated by insufficient funding, lack of coordination and rough knowledge about the invaders.

"The science is not there yet where we can make a prediction that a species represents a certain threat," Florida biologist Don Schmitz said. "That's the holy grail of invasion biology, trying to determine which species will become invasive."

Despite that uncertainty, scientists and environmental groups see prevention as the most cost-effective way to solve the problem.

"Unfortunately, I don't think that's where the bulk of these state programs are," said attorney Meg Filbey of the non-partisan Environmental Law Institute .

Filbey, an author of a recent ELI report about state policy options, said state officials instead tend to focus on the more expensive approach of managing invasive species once they become established.

But state officials are deploying new tools in the battle against invasive species, Filbey said. In states such as Illinois, Louisiana and Minnesota, owners of certain invasive species must post bonds, and in Georgia, owners of particularly harmful invasive species must obtain liability insurance. Additionally, state officials in Hawaii have begun to offer incentives for reporting invasive species violations and to impose sharp fines on violators.

"Hawaii, Florida and California have much more comprehensive programs," Filbey said. "Those are the states that have been the most affected by invasive species."

In Florida, state officials are battling invasive species that include hydrilla, the shrub-like Brazilian pepper tree and an Australian tree called melaleuca.

"Florida has been described as a biological cesspool of introduced life," Schmitz, the Florida biologist, said. "Prevention is a difficult issue because Florida is a tourist state and is home to a large tropical fish and pet industry."

Officials rely heavily on permits and the prohibition of certain aquatic plants and noxious weeds, said Schmitz, an invasive weed specialist with the Bureau of Invasive Plant Management in Florida's Department of Environmental Protection.

The bureau is the lead agency in Florida that coordinates and funds statewide programs to control invasive aquatic and invasive upland plants.

"We have roughly $30 million to accomplish these tasks," an adequate amount for the state's immediate needs, Schmitz said. "When we had a lack of funding, species like hydrilla got out of control, and it cost more money to bring it back into maintenance control."

Other attempts to battle invasive species in Florida include:

  • The 1994 passage of the Everglades Forever Act, calling for clean-up and restoration plans. 
  • The 1984 formation of the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council, an independent organization promoting public awareness of invasive plants. 
  • The 2001 formation of the Invasive Species Working Group, which coordinates invasive species-related activities among state agencies.
  • Hawaiian officials also face invasive species problems from a different set of exotic pests. To combat invasive species such as the weed Miconia and to prevent the establishment of the brown tree snake, Hawaiian officials have employed many of the newer tools, including enforcement mechanisms, positive incentives and public education.

"Invasive species programs are like fire departments you need to have them all the time," said Michael Buck, administrator of the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife. "We have an incredible amount at risk. Our whole economy is based on our environment."

Even so, problems remain. Hawaii's programs lack involvement from the private sector and have less than half of the funding needed to be effective, Buck said.

States around the country have resources at their disposal. The State Environmental Resource Center, a non-lobbying, Web-based organization, researches state environmental issues. The organization offers sample policies, including legislation, a sample executive order and a draft administrative program, that states can adopt to combat invasive species.

"What you have in states is a lack of coordination and a lot of holes in regulation," SERC policy assistant Jonelle Dilley said. "States need to coordinate all their efforts and do something like establish an invasive species council."

Legislation in Oregon in 2001 did just that, creating the 12-member Invasive Species Council. And even though Oregon lacks a tropical, invasive species-prone climate, fighting invasive species still is a high priority, council chairman Daniel Hilburn said.

"We're concerned about invasive species because we don't want to get zebra mussels and gypsy moths," Hilburn said. "We're free from them so we want to keep it that way."

Oregon's Invasive Species Council is drafting a statewide management plan, and it operates a toll-free number 1-866-INVADER where Oregon residents can report suspected invasive species sightings.

"We need the public and the people that are working outdoors and playing outside to help us with this," said Hilburn, also administrator of the Plant Division for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. "There are not enough eyes and ears on the payroll."

The top 21 invasive weeds in Oregon put an $83 million dent in the state's pocket each year, according to a 2000 report by the Research Group of Corvallis Oregon.

Hilburn said officials across the United States need to improve their survey and detection capabilities. In the absence of surveying, no invasive species are detected, he said. That doesn't mean none are there.

"It means you're losing the battle, and you're not even aware of it," Hilburn said. "Right now, budgets are tight all over. It's pay now or pay later. If you pay later, you pay more."