Sunday, April 7, 2013

What bugs me about the Canadian government's announcement about this bug

The Canadian minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver, announcedthis weekend that the Asian longhorned beetle has been  ‘eradicated’ in Canada. If it’s true, this is a good thing.  This beetle, Anoplophora glabripennis, is not native to Canada, and is believed to have come to North America in the 1980s, hitching a ride on wooden packing crates arriving with goods from Asia. The city of Vaughan, Ontario, north of Toronto, is believed to have been one of the key spots where this beetle infestation began, although it is also now found in many parts of the US. The beetle lays its eggs in the bark of hardwood trees, where the larvae burrow and eat their way into the tree’s tissues. After pupating, the adult emerges, mates, and the female lays its eggs in the same tree or a nearby one. Eventually, the infested tree will die. Being an introduced species, there has been great concern the beetle would spread and decimate Canadian hardwoods, in much the same way the emerald ash borer is presently doing to Ontario’s native ash trees. Fortunately, the beetle spreads more slowly than the borer.

The Minister’s announcement is based on claims that no sightings of the Asian longhorned beetle have been made in Canada in the past six years. Is this a reliable basis on which to conclude the beetle has been ‘eradicated’?  If reaction to online news stories about the Minister’s announcement is any indication, many people are skeptical. They are also openly mocking the Minister’s claims that he and his government are responsible for the eradication. A concerted effort was initiated many years ago by the federal and provincial governments and the City of Toronto to control the beetle by removing and destroying infested or potentially infested trees. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) several years ago implemented regulations and inspection requirements on wooden crates entering Canada from overseas; I believe these have been in place long before the current government ever came to power. All this to say, it’s a bit rich for the minister to take all the credit, but that’s what all politicians like to do. For me, the important questions are: 1) is the beetle now gone, and (2) why choose to make such an announcement now?

Let’s begin with the first question. The absence of any reported sightings of the beetle is not proof of their eradication. There are at least 3 reasons why this is so. A first is that they may be present but simply be going unobserved, perhaps because their population is small or because control efforts have pushed them to less obvious locations. Second, people may have observed these beetles but not known what they are. Or third, people have observed them, recognized them for what they are, but have not reported them. Only once possibilities such as these three have been systematically eliminated can we start to say with confidence that this invasive species has been eradicated. It does not appear the Canadian government has made a systematic attempt to do so. It is unusual that the federal government is claiming the beetle is eradicated in Canada when it is still present in northern US states like New York and Massachusetts.

Several people who have posted comments to news websites state they have seen this beetle in recent years, and at least one claims s/he reported this to CFIA but was ignored. Here’s what the beetle looks like. If you see this beetle this summer, you should (1) catch it and put it in a glass jar (don’t give it air holes, you do not want to keep it alive) or in a freezer bag and pop it in the freezer, (2) notify CFIA at 1-800-442-2342 or, if in Ontario, click here, and (3) if you’re so inclined, record a simple video of yourself with the beetle, explaining the precise location/date/time you found it and upload it to YouTube so that everyone can know. Hopefully this will encourage others to do the same and start a public discussion.

Note there are many native longhorned beetles that are not invasive species. The Asian longhorned has black & white striped antennae, and a shiny black body with white spots. It won’t harm you to touch it. There is a native species that looks somewhat similar, the Whitespotted Sawyer (Monochamus scutellatus), but it is most commonly found on pine trees and cut logs. If you find a suspect beetle on deciduous trees, especially maple trees, that’s the one to be concerned about.  

The beetle problem is an example where a cheap & simple internet site could be created to engage the general public in monitoring, not unlike the RinkWatch project I’ve written about before. People who think they’ve spotted one of these beetles could pin the location on a google map, snap a photo of the insect with their smartphone and upload it, and CFIA would then be able to view, confirm or discount the report. For $1,500 one of my undergrad students could create something like this in a week. In an era of shrinking government resources, it’s amazing that CFIA and other government agencies haven’t implemented these sorts of citizen science monitoring projects for all kinds of environmental concerns.

Now on to my second question, why this announcement now? The federal government loves to produce propaganda singing its own praises, and Natural Resources Canada has been pretty shameless in this regard. The government  particularly likes to issue statements and propaganda ads about its environmental successes and commitments at the same time it starts doing things like reducing environmental regulations or reducing budgets for inspections and enforcement of environmental and public health regulations. (If in doubt, have a look at this propaganda ad that was released on TV the same time the government was proposing to do away with the requirement for environmental impact assessments on many types of natural resource development projects (you'll also note the government disabled the ability to comment on the YouTube version)).  

I hope that the beetle announcement it is simply an attempt by the government to market itself as a champion of good environmental stewardship, even if the facts behind the claim might be somewhat hard to prove. I hope the announcement is not a precursor to lifting current regulations and CFIA inspection requirements on wooden pallets used to transport goods from Asia to Canada, which is how insects like this get to Canada in the first place. I hate to be so suspicious, but unfortunately, past experience has shown too often this is how this particular government operates. 

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