Buffelgrass is taking over southern Arizona. This invasive perennial grass originated in Africa and was imported for erosion control and livestock grazing. Now it’s ravaging the wild lands in my area, overtaking native species in our desert landscape (you can see its straw-colored progression up hillsides in the photo above near my home) and increasing the danger of wildfires.
Invasive species are not a new issue, in the desert and elsewhere. Siberian Elm trees were imported to my childhood hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico in the 1940s by City Commission Chair Clyde Tingley. Opinions on this prolific tree are mixed, but I hated them every spring as I sneezed at their pollen and cleaned up piles of their abundant seedpods. (Nicknamed “Tingley’s Dandruff,” those seeds germinate quickly and root “all the way to Siberia!” When we were house hunting in Albuquerque a dozen-plus years ago, I told the realtor I would not consider a house with elms in the yard.)
Yet invasive species are only doing what they are genetically programmed to do: bloom where they are planted, as the saying goes. The fact that we’ve brought them to places where they can thrive is just that: a fact. The consequences come from not considering the impact of our actions. We might have the agenda of placing hardy, drought-tolerant plants in the desert to improve our quality of life, but we don’t consider that they might unbalance the ecosystem and literally set the desert on fire.
Of course, stepping back even further, most Americans are an invasive species. Seeking to improve their quality of life, my ancestors came to these shores and either pushed out or killed off the Native American species of homo sapiens who lived in the lands they settled. Does that seem harsh? Perhaps it is. My antiracism studies have taught me that we’ve caused horrific damage to this nation and its native peoples over the centuries. We have a lot to atone for—yet we had “good reasons” for our actions, just as Clyde Tingley and Arizona ranchers did.
I’m not seeking to condemn, but to raise awareness. We seldom consider the entire web of life when we introduce new species into an ecosystem—including ourselves. When we clear land for housing developments, we drive out native species of all sorts, damaging the web of life in the area. (Full disclosure: I live in one such housing development, although it was cotton farmland prior to housing, so native plants and animals had already been driven out to some extent.) When the native species return and other seeds blow in, we deem them weeds and destroy them with poisonous chemicals. (Full disclosure: I refuse to further poison the land and dig up all invasive species by hand.)
There is some hope. Our native saguaros are legally protected. People band together to dig out buffelgrass, reweaving the damaged web of life. But eradication is not always a possible or reasonable goal, especially where humans are concerned. We must also learn to coexist without destroying each other.
What are your stories about invasive species? How can you contribute to reweaving the web of life?