The Native Conundrum

Native: an organism indigenous to a particular region; of indigenous origin, growth, or production ( Native is one of this century’s big buzz words. I don’t think I go a single day without reading or hearing something about native and/or non-native species. Then again, I do work in natural resources…  I read an article in the most recent issue of Trout magazine that once again has me fired up about “natives.” I, of course, am an advocate of conservation and protecting our wild lands and resources, but I find that the battles waged over an organism’s “native-ness” are getting to the ridiculous point. Allow me to present some thoughtful points on the subject……

AZ Game & Fish:

Lets start with looking at what commonly defines an organism as “non-native.” A non-native organism is typically considered one that arrived here (I am only speaking of the U.S. at this time) via human activity, be it accidental or deliberate. It is noted, but not very often, that not all non-natives are harmful. Those that are considered harmful are labeled as “invasive.”  This brings me to my first point- what is the most invasive species in North America? WHITE MAN! We are not indigenous to North America. White man also had a pretty serious deleterious effect on the indigenous people of North America, worthy of “invasive” status for sure. Yet I don’t see any articles written or grants proposed for the removal of non-native folk in this county. We certainly do take it upon ourselves to judge the fate of every other organism within our jurisdiction though!

Another short-sighted aspect of our love affair with fighting non-natives is that we have based all of our data on a very short period of geologic time. Lewis and Clark were the first white people to explore North America and make a list of everything they saw. This was at the beginning of the 1800’s. I doubt their list was comprehensive, and it was only 200 years ago. I’m sure we have some historical record of species’ existence or absence thru Native American records, but in all reality “new” species are being discovered every day and there is no sure way to tell how long they have been existing in a place. My next point- we really don’t have the scientific knowledge to say whether or not something is truly indigenous or not because we have so few records.  Anyone remotely interested in science knows the earth fluctuates through time and for all we know the earth may have at one time been completely covered in spotted knapweed.

Western Native Trout Initiative:

The article that got me all fired up was about an initiative to save the “native” greenback trout out west.  A group studying these fish took DNA from historic preserved samples as well as the live greenbacks from the area in question. Turns out the current fish are not genetically the same as the historic population, and they are most likely a hybrid or simply a new strain that is genetically different due to adaptation and evolution.   So now there is some question as to the need to go forward with saving their habitat if they are not truly the same. It is now suspected that each of the small streams within the larger watershed in fact have different strains of the greenback, each existing only in their isolated area. Does the fact that they are not exactly the same as the historic sample mean they are not worth saving? Really? Have we forgotten the theory of evolution? That would be like saying that because finches today are not genetically the same as Darwin’s finches then they should be considered worthless. A greenback is a greenback and if the consensus is that its an important species to save, then do it, genetics be damned.

On the other hand, we as a society seem to be spending an awful lot of time and money trying to save species that may not be fit for saving. I know nothing about the greenback trout specifically, but again as we have learned from history species come and go. Climate and conditions of earth are constantly changing on a geologic timescale.  Notice we don’t have dinosaurs anymore, just evidence that at one time they existed. It may be the same for plants and fish that we are desperately trying to hang on to. Is the greenback fit for a longer existence in its range or is the climate changing such that it won’t hold on much longer no matter what we do? Only time will tell.

In the mean time species like rainbow and brown trout get a bad rap as being invasive and are sometimes even eliminated from ecosystems via harsh chemicals  simply because they were not known to be in certain watersheds prior to 1800. This morning I read another article from the Michigan TU magazine that discussed a specific strain of brown trout being introduced into local rivers (from another local river) that are top water systems with ever rising water temps because the strain is better adapted to warm water. Brown trout are considered non-native and in some places invasive, but here we have an example where a strain of brown trout is better suited to the changing conditions than the “native” trout species.

I am not advocating that we continue spreading unwelcome organisms about the world, but I do think we need to take a closer look at our role in the system. The main issue is that we humans like to think we are the top of everything and are in control of nature. How wrong you are if you think that. Nature has a course, we can alter that course in the way of speeding it up, but we can’t change where its going. We can’t take back what we’ve already done simply by applying chemicals. And we can’t affect our future enough to really matter. It’s too late. We can live in the present and spend our time enjoying and protecting the natural resources we love, but keep in mind we are non-natives in a land that is not really ours.
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