Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cricket Crisis

Crickets are raised by the millions for feeding lizards, snakes, and other pets. In addition, these insects have played an important role in Chinese, Japanese, and Native American cultures as a symbol of good fortune, vitality, and prosperity.
In the United States, the pet store species is the house cricket, Acheta domesticus. It is not a native species, but it is not considered to be invasive, even though feral populations occur in the United States.
In recent years, cricket producers have been struggling to control a virus, Acheta domesticus densovirus AdDNV, that is spreading through their colonies. The virus is thought to have originated from Europe.

European cricket producers have switched to other species not susceptible to AdDNV. Now the American cricket industry is pressuring the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to allow them to import the field cricket Gryllus assimilis from Europe. Another non-native species, the field cricket has already been introduced and has become established in Texas and Florida. Two other alternatives are also under consideration: rearing field-collected G. assimilis from the United States or importing resistant A. domesticus from Europe.

The USDA is doing the right thing by conducting a risk assessment.*  It seems to me that the alternatives being considered are low risk to agriculture and the natural environment in Oregon—they are, however, not the best idea. Bringing in stock from overseas is almost certainly how the virus arrived in the United States in the first place. What the cricket industry should be doing is developing rearing techniques for a native species. What is wrong with good old American crickets?

This situation reminds me a lot of what has happened with honey bees and bumble bees. Commercial sales of these species have been little regulated because they are not considered “pests.” Oregon’s apiary regulations were repealed, except for hive registration, in 1993. Importation of commercially available non-native bumble bees is allowed by our neighbor states. It is easy to order live bees via the Internet and have them shipped almost anywhere in the world. 

The downside of this convenience is that we’re sharing our bee production problems. Movement of bees has spread bee diseases and mite pests across continents and around the world. For the most part, the beekeepers that benefit from the convenience are the same people that suffer the consequences. The same would be true for cricket producers. Should we care? 

Does it matter if cricket farmers shoot themselves in the foot by importing exotic crickets? It would matter if the diseases spread to native species. A couple of species of bumble bees that used to be common in the Northwest are now quite rare. Could it be that imported bumble bees brought a disease that spread to the wild? Some scientists think so, but there is no proof.

This summer, the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) will be conducting the first ever statewide pollinator survey, thanks to a grant from USDA. We need baseline data on pollinator distribution and abundance. Without it, a species could disappear without anyone even noticing. We probably should be doing something similar with our native crickets—and perhaps other species that aren’t charismatic megafauna, but are vital to the health of our agriculture industry and natural resources.

Dan Hilburn

*Meissner H. & R. Ahern. 2011. Risk associated with importation and interstate movement of Gryllus assimilis and Acheta domesticus (Orthoptera:Gryllidae) for commercial purposes. USDA. Version 2.0. 5 pp.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Invasive Species Double-edged Sword for Nurseries

The nursery industry has a love-hate relationship with invasive species regulations. On the one hand, exotic diseases like Phytophthora ramorum, a.k.a. sudden oak death, threaten the industry with direct losses through disease infections and, more importantly, indirect losses through restrictions and lost markets from quarantines imposed by other countries and states. As you’d expect, the nursery industry is a big supporter of keeping all sorts of harmful pests, plant diseases, and weeds out of Oregon.

They even tax themselves to support an emergency fund to address pest and disease emergencies that might impact their industry. This fund was tapped recently to help eradicate an infestation of Japanese beetles at Portland International Airport.

On the other hand, some plants introduced via the nursery trade have become noxious weeds, so the industry is also part of the problem. English ivy that drapes many of the trees in our natural areas is a well known example. The yellow flowers of Scotch broom that are appearing now along roadsides are another reminder. Both were introduced and sold for decades as ornamental plants. Understandably, the industry is concerned about what plants are added to prohibited plant lists and noxious weed quarantines. Today English ivy and Scotch broom have been phased out of the nursery trade. It is illegal to import, propagate, or sell them in Oregon.

Fifteen years ago when we first approached the Oregon Association of Nurseries (OAN) about banning sales of English ivy, the Executive Director told me, “That will never happen!” He told me one well-known nursery owner had “put his kids through college on sales of English ivy.” Since then the nursery industry has seen the writing on the wall, and OAN has supported recent additions of problem feral ornamentals to the noxious weed list. It is no surprise that a vocal minority still objects and thinks government should keep its nose out of what plants people can buy.

The Department started phasing out butterfly bush in 2008. A decade ago, land managers began to notice butterfly bush thriving on river banks, roadsides, and forest clearcuts. It showed all the signs of becoming as weedy as Scotch broom. After the State Weed Board added it to the official list of noxious weeds, I reluctantly cut down the three bushes in my yard. I love butterflies, so it was not something I wanted to do. However, this story is going to have a happy ending. The nursery industry responded to our regulations by developing new seedless hybrid varieties, analogous to seedless grapes or seedless watermelons. We adopted a 98% reduced fertility requirement and set up a process for independent review of fertility trials through Oregon State University. A dozen new seedless varieties have been approved in the past few months. They just began to trickle down to garden centers and catalogs. These complex inter-specific hybrids can’t revert to the wild type, and they produce little, if any, viable seed.

I’m holding a couple of spots in my yard for them. In reviewing the approval paperwork, I’ve seen pictures from the trials, and the plants are spectacular. They are compact, have more flowers, and have longer blooming periods than the older seeded varieties, and they still attract butterflies!

This is a big deal, and not just for me. It is the first time plant breeders have considered and successfully addressed invasiveness in developing new ornamental varieties. Oregon is leading the way. Regulators and plant breeders all over the country are watching us. Hopefully this is just the beginning. Oregon State University has recently hired a young plant breeder, Dr. Ryan Contraras, to develop new ornamental varieties. I toured his lab, greenhouse, and field plots last week. He’s started work on a dozen different types of plants—from Norway maple to ornamental grasses. In several cases, sterility to prevent invasiveness is a primary goal of the breeding.

If it ever warms up this spring and you get a chance to visit your local garden store, you’ll see a large variety of plants. You shouldn’t miss the few bad apples that have been phased out. While you’re there, if you see any of the new seedless butterfly bush varieties, like Blue Chip, White Icing, or Peach Cobbler, and are seduced into buying some by the gorgeous pictures on the label, remember. . . save some for me!   
Dan Hilburn

Friday, May 6, 2011

Spiders from Spain and Other Thoughts

An email in my Inbox this week included a question about importing spiders from Spain! Are there any regulations? Is a permit required? I’ve handled some interesting questions, but never this particular one. Working through our partners at US Department of Agriculture (USDA), we asked for more information—always a good first step, especially in this case, where the desired species du jour was the Mediterranean recluse, Loxosceles rufescens, a cousin of the poisonous brown recluse. The person wanted to import them to Portland, Oregon for “research.”

Ironically, an advisory committee is wrestling with proposed regulations related to non-native invertebrates as I write this blog.

There are a couple of interesting philosophical questions behind proposing regulations for non-native invertebrates. First, should the state use an “Approved List” or “Prohibited List” approach? An approved list would mean that species not on the list would be prohibited. A prohibited list would work the opposite way; only the species on the list would be prohibited—everything else would be allowed. In informal regulatory circles, these approaches are referred to as: “When in doubt, keep it out,” versus “Not a clue, let it through.” Anyone detect an echo of “Big Government” vs. “Personal Freedom?”

Most government regulations in this arena use prohibited lists, e.g., Oregon’s noxious weed lists. If a plant isn’t on the list, you can import it, propagate it, and sell it. Oregon uses a different approach for birds, fish, mammals, and other vertebrates. If it’s not on Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s approved list (actually several lists for non-regulated, controlled, noncontrolled species), it’s prohibited. Here is the regulation:

Requirements for Importation and Possession of Live Wildlife 
For species, subspecies or hybrids listed as Prohibited or those species not yet classified, a permit will
not be issued allowing the importation and possession of live wildlife, except to American Zoo and
Aquarium Association (AZA) accredited facilities, colleges, universities and those facilities which can
demonstrate compliance with standards as provided in OAR 635-056-0050(2). For species, subspecies or
hybrids listed as Controlled, an importation permit may be required as set forth by the commission. For
species, subspecies or hybrids listed as Noncontrolled, no ODFW importation permit is required.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) is proposing to use a similar approach for invertebrates, such as insects, centipedes, earthworms, etc. We think it makes sense to publish an approved list of the invertebrates that are used for pet food, classrooms projects, biological control, etc. These would not require a permit. Odd balls like spiders from Spain would require a permit. That would give ODA the ability to assess the risk of a proposed introduction and deny the request or impose safeguards if there is a risk of the species becoming a problem.

The second big question we’re wrestling with is where to draw the line on what species to include in the regulation. Should we focus just on agricultural pests, just insects, or every little critter that walks on the land or flies through the air? What about bees, spiders, millipedes, mites, earthworms, and nematodes? I have personally handled requests for bees from China, earthworms from Belgium, lightning bugs from North Carolina, and snails from California. The reality is we live in a global market that includes trade in all sorts of live animals.

Land invertebrates are actually only half the question. What about marine species, such as jellyfish, sanddollars, copepods, and, sand shrimp?  Should these be regulated? If someone wanted to introduce an Atlantic jellyfish to an Oregon estuary, would that be okay? I am not aware of any applicable regulations.

Marine species would be a world away from what ODA has regulated in the past, but if the field is empty, maybe someone has to step up and occupy it. The new definition of plant pest given to us by our elected representatives is quite broad and has a lot of latitude for interpretation:

As used in ORS 570.210 to 570.225, “plant pest” means:
      (1) A disease, microscopic organism, insect, nematode, arthropod, parasite or a noxious weed as defined in ORS 569.175, capable of having a significant adverse effect on the environmental quality of the state or of causing a significant level of economic damage in this state, including but not limited to damage to agricultural, horticultural or forest plants, crops, commodities or products; and
      (2) Any biotic agent identified in an order or rule of the State Department of Agriculture as capable of having a significant adverse effect on the environmental quality of the state, or of causing a significant level of economic damage in this state, including but not limited to damage to agricultural, horticultural or forest plants, crops, commodities or products. [2009 c.98 §4]

Where would you draw the line?

Now back to the Spanish spiders. Because USDA does not regulate spiders (nor does any other agency), ODA made the call. We researched L. rufescens, combed through our authority, talked it over, and replied, “Not allowed without a permit.” Because there is no established mechanism for getting a permit, it’s not a very good answer. Up until now, we’ve never issued state permits for invertebrates, but we were given the authority to do so when the legislature updated our plant quarantine laws. It’s time for us to figure out answers to these questions out and get a system in place. What would you recommend?

Dan Hilburn

Monday, May 2, 2011

Burning Lessons From Firewood Legislation

Oregon is close to having a law that keeps potentially bug and disease-infested firewood from being sold in our state. That's important. Firewood is a vector of invasive woodborers, such as Emerald ash borer, Asian longhorned beetle, and European wood wasp. These are just some of the invasive species known to hitchhike in firewood. We don't have them here in Oregon, and we definitely don't want them.

The legislative process wasn't easy; in fact, it was exhausting, but it was interesting, and we were relentless in our pursuit of protecting Oregon's 31 million acres of forests.

This week, after five sets of amendments, House Bill 2122 passed out of the Senate Environment Committee. It now goes to the Legislative Council to become an engrossed bill, and then moves to the full Senate for a floor vote. After that, it goes back to the House for their concurrence (because they passed an un-amended version), then on the Governor's desk for his signature. The ink drying on that piece of paper will be a welcome sight indeed!

Once the Governor signs the bill, the rule-making process beings to turn the authority to regulate imported firewood into actual regulations!

But like everything else in life, there are lessons learned from this firewood legislation journey:

  •  Your simple idea for a straightforward bill will come back from Legislative Council in barely recognizable legalese. Make an appointment with the drafter, and discuss whether his/her proposed language matches your ideas and intent; it won't be obvious from the draft bill.
  •  Talk to as many people as you can that might be impacted by the law, including opponents. In this particular case, the fact that Oregon's firewood industry is very decentralized made it difficult to dot all of the i's and cross all of the t's before taking the bill to both House and Senate Committees. If people know you have listened to their concerns, they are less likely to torpedo your bill. Oregon Loggers Association switched their position from opposition to neutral on our firewood bill after we met with them and developed a mutually acceptable amendment. Supporters are important, but neutralizing opposition is critical.
  •  Find some legislators, preferably from both political parties, that like your bill. Having legislators familiar and knowledgeable about the issue will help to generate "aye" votes from other committee members.
  •  Keep in close contact with committee administrators, and be as helpful as possible to make the bill a success for the legislators on their committees. Committee administrators can work miracles.
  •  Finally, align yourself with people that have the drive, passion, and tenacity to shepherd the bill. Through the ups and downs of the legislative process, it helps to have people to brainstorm with, think strategically, and shore one another up when patience runs thin!
There is more work to do. Not only do we still have to develop and adopt Administrative Rules (the actual regulations), but we also need to get the work out to firewood dealers, retail businesses and the general public: Buy and Burn Local (Pacific Northwest) firewood. Some people haven't heard the message. This week, a colleague at Oregon State University sent a cell phone picture of an out-of-state recreational vehicle traveling through Oregon with firewood stacked on the bumper. There is a good chance there were live insects in the wood, and I'm sure the campers didn't have a clue they were putting Oregon forests at risk.

I wish they had seen this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XN3Aa-tjA_E) so that they, too, could learn a lesson about not moving firewood.

Dan Hilburn