Disturbed ecosystems and conservation

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pogrmman
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Disturbed ecosystems and conservation

Postby pogrmman » Tue Jun 18, 2019 10:48 pm UTC

I’ve been thinking a ton about ecosystem inbalance and the importance of conservation recently. Warning, what follows is a very long, rambling, semi-coherent brain dump on my thoughts.

Just looking at the little wooded area in my little suburb, I see so much evidence of it. While there’s a good number of canopy tree species (my count gives 12 including invasive species), there’s literally only two of which I’ve observed any saplings larger than a couple inches tall. One of those is invasive, fast growing, and toxic (chinaberry, Melia azedarach) and the other is native but very prickly when young (Ashe juniper, Juniperus ashei). Literally none of the others have seedlings or young plants under about 5’ tall. Why is this? Immense deer pressure. It’s not like the trees have problems sprouting: I see countless seedlings of other species, but they all get grazed by deer. Even the invasive wax-leaf ligustrum, Ligustrum lucidum has trouble growing up from tiny seedlings. Fenced in areas without deer rapidly grow thick with young oak, elm, hackberry, ash, and ligustrum. This has been the case for as long as I’ve lived here.

These casual observations are borne out by professional research. Some research has shown that in the surrounding area, very few oaks have recruited to adulthood after the 1930s and attribute it to deer.

While not all of the surrounding area is naturally woodland, most of the suburb I’m in would’ve been: it’s crisscrossed by lots of the valleys/washes that are thought to have naturally been woodland and many of the species here wouldn’t have existed on the savannas also in the area.

To make matters worse, it seems like we lose large trees with every single storm that comes through. Last storm, it was a big American elm. Just in the past 3 years, I estimate that we’ve lost 10 or 15 large (40’+ tall) trees in the immediate vicinity of my house. I imagine that in only a few decades, the mixed woodland here will be gone without intervention. All of that seems to be somewhat attributable to the elimination of the native large predators that’d keep the deer in check (but also due to people feeding deer with their tasty landscaping).

That’s not even mentioning the invasive species. Just as a case example, I’ll focus on ants because I’m interested in them and have kept tabs on the ants around here for years. This area has many ant species. Just in our property, I’ve counted something like 15 or 20 species, and I haven’t really gone looking hard. But there are invasive species, notably Brachymyrmex patagonicus, Solenopsis invicta, and Tetramorium bicarinatum. Over the years, I’ve watched these species encroach on my house progressively. And I’ve noticed a huge decline in other ants: aside from the arboreal Crematogaster laeviuscula and Pseudomyrmex gracilis, I’ve watched as native ants get outcompeted by these invaders. The generalists Pheidole hyatti and S. geminata have become less common. Other Pheidole are now only found uncommonly, while they used to be very abundant. The various larger Camponotus seem to be less active than they used to and foundress queens seem to be much rarer. I hardly see any Monomorium anymore. Going into less common ants, the only native Formica is downright rare now; Leptogenys elongata seems to be significantly rarer; Cyphomyrmex rimosus has become less common; and I only see Pachychondyla harpax maybe once a month (down from around once a week). While Hypoponera and Strumigenys were always hard to find, I haven’t seen any in a few years (not even the more common queens of the former). Basically every single ground-dwelling species has been reduced in abundance. Now, B. patagonicus, S. invicta, and T. bicarinatum make up the majority of what I see, while before, there used to be a huge mix.

Regarding invasive plants, I’ve seen the understory of the woodland change from mostly yaupon and frostweed to something being full of nandina, four-o’clocks, and Ligustrum.

And that’s just modern disruptions. There’s even visible consequences of megafaunal extinction right in my own backyard. While I haven’t seen any research on it, I’ve noticed that Texas mountain laurel, Dermatophyllum secundiflorum seems to have no effective dispersal agent. I suspect it may have had megafauna dispersal. It produces pods that become hard and woody that never open and are filled with very hard, very toxic, bright red seeds. The pods stay on the plant, sometimes for years. When they eventually fall off and rot or break, the seeds remain on the ground beneath the plant. You can find an abundance of seeds under any mature tree during any time of year. In this state, the seeds only sprout after years because the seed cost must be scarified to absorb water. It seemingly fits the bill for megafaunal distribution except for one thing: it’s still fairly widespread, despite its seeming lack of dispensers. I believe this comes down to the fact that it has a very long (~8000+ year) history of use of its seeds for ornamental and psychoactive purposes. In other words, humans became its dispersal agent. When combined with its fairly long lifespan (probably at least a few hundred years), it makes sense that it’d still be widely dispersed despite its loss of dispersal agents.

Despite all that, I’d say it’s still in better shape than many suburban ecosystems: it was mostly left intact instead of being entirely destroyed and replaced by cookie-cutter lawns. But that still worries me: if this little section is so degraded, what about other areas? Humans clearly have and have had incredibly large impacts on ecosystems all over the place and it seems insurmountable to correct all the damage. Even without accounting for the changing climate, it seems like we’ve irreparably damaged many ecosystems. Hell, even when I’m out in the “wilderness” in the back country of a national forest or park, I still see some signs of human-caused damage and change. The only place I’ve ever been that I felt was without that was in a remote part of Alaska — but I also attribute that to not being as familiar with that kind of habitat.

It seems like a nearly insurmountable issue even to try and preserve a single habitat, so trying to conserve huge array of them on the planet seems impossible. While I acknowledge that some areas should be higher priority for conservation purposes, I’ve always thought that we should take a broad approach as well. Most species vary a lot: looking at plants, even just at one site there can be pretty noticeable differences in leaf size and shape, fruit size, and other characters. It seems important to try and capture the full breadth of diversity in a species if we aim to preserve it and that probably can’t be done if we divert all resources to certain areas. While I think everyone acknowledges that fact, I believe that raising awareness of conservation issues in general is important.

It’s not like the average person can’t take steps to help preserve the ecosystem. For instance, I’ve been selectively poisoning imported fire ant colonies for years after confirming the ID with a microscope and it’s certainly helped slow their spread. But that’s hindered by the common treatment for fire ants around here: broadcast bait over literally the whole area. That kills off most ants, not just fire ants. And because the imported fire ants produce new queens during literally the whole year and because those queens’ colonies can hit 10k workers in 6 months, the ant vacuum is quickly filled by fire ants (mostly imported ones, not natives). I’ve seen it at work here: some areas not that far from here have literally only fire ants. Those produce many new queens and have probably exacerbated the invasion. Even stopping that process or making people think and investigate beforehand could have a fairly significant conservation effect.

Especially with ongoing global warming, I believe it’s crucially important to work now to preserve what we have on a broad scale. I think that average people can and should do their part, even if only doing simple stuff like not planting invasive species. It’s a shame that in 2019, you can go to a garden center and come back with a car full of species that are known to be invasive. Even my great, little local nursery that focuses on natives still carries some invasive stuff!

Expanding populations will only further degrade the ecosystem, and we seem to have caused major damage in areas close to population centers. What do y’all think?

TL;DR: My random musings on human degradation of the ecosystem and thoughts on how we must raise awareness of conservation issues.

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Ranbot
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Re: Disturbed ecosystems and conservation

Postby Ranbot » Wed Jun 19, 2019 2:03 pm UTC

There is far more to unpack there than I can reasonably hope to do, and I would risk talking beyond my expertise, especially about the biology/horticultural stuff.

However, maybe your area has something similar to the Penn State Master Watershed Stewardship program? The program is intended to teach and raise awareness of protecting and managing watersheds, which directly or indirectly relates to the issues you raised. Volunteers take classes over a period of ~4 months to learn the basic science (very basic), and then get connected to or create their own local volunteer projects. It's not a political activist group. Penn State considers the Master Watershed Stewardship program [and other similar programs] part of their responsibility as a land-grant university. Every US state has a land-grant university, so maybe a similar program is in your area, or if you're really ambitious you could help start one.

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pogrmman
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Re: Disturbed ecosystems and conservation

Postby pogrmman » Wed Jun 26, 2019 2:49 pm UTC

I did kind of dump a lot in there and it probably sounded like the incoherent ramblings of a madman...

I have been doing stuff myself to help mitigate some of the damage. In fact, my family is actually planning on replanting a lot of trees from seed and protecting them from deer sometime this fall. We're also going to remove invasive species.

I think there are such programs locally, but it's not like they have huge participation. There are a lot of conservation-minded people here, but it's not like it's enough to really have a large impact. For instance, people have been quite successful in making the use of natives in landscaping the norm here, but that doesn't mean that people quit planting invasives. Instead, they just kind of melded natives with the invasives and kept planting them. Lots of the better nurseries are good about not carrying the worst invasive species, but they still carry some and Lowes/Home Depot and the like keep carrying them... It just seems to me like it will take a much, much larger scale effort to help solve this problem.

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Ranbot
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Re: Disturbed ecosystems and conservation

Postby Ranbot » Fri Jun 28, 2019 3:00 pm UTC

pogrmman wrote:I’ve been thinking a ton about ecosystem inbalance...in my little suburb....cookie-cutter lawns.

In suburban areas the biggest threat to biodiversity is often the ubiquitous lawn, which is like a wasteland to most native plants, birds, insects, and animals. Planting a few natives in home gardens/landscaping creates small oases in the lawn wasteland, but it's not enough. Convincing people to let their lawn be something else, like a meadow or planned garden of mainly native plants will have the biggest positive impact on biodiversity. Lawns also do very little to help control stormwater and erosion. After a meadow or garden has been established it can be far less maintenance than a lawn too, which saves time and money, especially for people with "problem" areas they struggle to keep a lawn alive, e.g. very wet or dry areas, under trees, steep slopes, large roots or rocks, poor soils, etc. It's hard to get people think outside of the lawn box though.

ijuin
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Re: Disturbed ecosystems and conservation

Postby ijuin » Sat Jun 29, 2019 1:59 pm UTC

And then we have the problem that many homeowners’ associations or local ordinances mandate that houses have lawns instead of native vegetation. My mother tried to do the meadow thing with her front yard, and the municipal government demanded that she return it to being a cookie-cutter lawn or face a two hundred dollar per day fine.

reval
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Re: Disturbed ecosystems and conservation

Postby reval » Sun Jun 30, 2019 6:00 pm UTC

More recent street repaving has given us boulevard sections intended to sink stormwater into the ground instead of funneling it into sewers. But we're still far from a broader understanding of what healthy habitat might look like. "Tangled-bank-good / lawn-bad" hasn't gotten through. As long as people are focused on their social standing relative to their neighbors they're going to have a hard time minimizing their personal impact on their surroundings. Living more lightly on the earth currently requires a certain disregard for a person's own status.

If only we could convince people that less-tended surroundings are a sign of HIGHER status ... just kidding. We'll have to let go of status altogether, or nothing good is possible.

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Ranbot
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Re: Disturbed ecosystems and conservation

Postby Ranbot » Mon Jul 01, 2019 1:39 am UTC

ijuin wrote:And then we have the problem that many homeowners’ associations or local ordinances mandate that houses have lawns instead of native vegetation. My mother tried to do the meadow thing with her front yard, and the municipal government demanded that she return it to being a cookie-cutter lawn or face a two hundred dollar per day fine.

reval wrote:If only we could convince people that less-tended surroundings are a sign of HIGHER status ... just kidding. We'll have to let go of status altogether, or nothing good is possible.

I sympathize, but I also hold some caution... A lawn doesn't become a biologically productive meadow by simply not mowing; then you just have [non-native] high lawn grass and whatever other invasive plants can get a toe-hold in the grass, all of which provides little support for native wildlife. Turning a lawn into a real meadow requires some work initially to get the natives established. The risk of fines and neighborhood status is also why I mentioned a "planned garden" above, which can still be tasteful to neighbors and biologically helpful... think of an English-style garden where every inch is full of plants, tiered, planned and tasteful. What's also great about English garden design is once established they require minimal maintenance because they are so full of plants that weeds/invasives can't establish themselves; they don't even need much (if any) mulch. No one is going fine someone who makes this their front yard:
Image

Furthermore, if curb-appeal or resources restricts what can be done with the front yard, many people still have BACKyards full of lawn grass where they could do something else that neighbors and local ordinances would have little to no say in.

reval wrote:More recent street repaving has given us boulevard sections intended to sink stormwater into the ground instead of funneling it into sewers.

That's an infrastructure change that is needed. Another infrastructure level change is if you live in a neighborhood with a storm water "detention" basin covered in grass with concrete raceways like this:
Image
...then your community could make it actually retain water and naturalize it with native wetland plants. After the initial investment to change it, maintenance is usually the same or less expensive than mowing an area like above photo, and a well designed natural area typically improves the property values around it. It's a no-brainer investment, but it needs to be explained well to people not familiar with these concepts.

If you live in an urban area with a combined sewer and storm-water system if you get an opportunity to voice concern or vote in favor of splitting the system, then do so. These infrastructure changes have dramatic effects on the quality of our rivers (biology, flooding, fish, recreational use, drinking water, etc.) more so than anything private individuals can do on their own small private properties. But I digress from the OP's point....

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pogrmman
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Re: Disturbed ecosystems and conservation

Postby pogrmman » Mon Jul 01, 2019 4:04 am UTC

I’ve never liked lawns. I just don’t think they look all that good, and I never have. I’ll never get why people seem to enjoy them so much. I mean, I love being outside, but a big stretch of short grass without anything else just doesn’t seem right to me.

ijuin wrote:And then we have the problem that many homeowners’ associations or local ordinances mandate that houses have lawns instead of native vegetation. My mother tried to do the meadow thing with her front yard, and the municipal government demanded that she return it to being a cookie-cutter lawn or face a two hundred dollar per day fine.

This is why I’m happy that our neighborhood doesn’t have an HOA. When they founded it, the residents decided they didn’t want one, so it’s never been created. I guess none of them wanted to be that dick breathing down people’s backs because of some violation of BS rules.

reval wrote:But we're still far from a broader understanding of what healthy habitat might look like. "Tangled-bank-good / lawn-bad" hasn't gotten through.

What a properly functioning habitat looks like varies by area. At least around here, "tangled-bank" thickets naturally only existed in canyons and probably weren’t as thick as they are today. They’re mostly yaupon, juniper, and various small-leaved privets now — the latter are from Asia and the former two are probably overabundant due to fire suppression and deer overpopulation (neither is eaten much by deer). Upland areas, like where most subdivisions are, were probably mostly mosaics of prairie and savanna instead of the dense juniper-oak woodland they are today.

Ranbot wrote:Another infrastructure level change is if you live in a neighborhood with a storm water "detention" basin covered in grass with concrete raceways like this:

...then your community could make it actually retain water and naturalize it with native wetland plants.

We’ve got a few of those nearby. Due to our location on the recharge zone of the Edwards aquifer, retention ponds are required in addition to limits on impermeable cover. They don’t usually have concrete raceways, though. The thing is, there aren’t many wetland plants in this area: those that do occur here live near permenant springs and would die when there hasn’t been rainfall recently. These detention basins get very dry even after only a week of no rain. They aren’t usually just short-cropped grass. They’re usually weedy pitches filled with a mix of invasive and native forbs and grasses kept short-ish by occasional mowing.

Ranbot wrote:Turning a lawn into a real meadow requires some work initially to get the natives established.

That is indeed true. I had an area die off due to competition with horseherb, which subsequently died from drought. I seeded some native grasses and forbs over it for erosion control, but, ironically, once they began growing with the fall and winter rain, they were outcompeted by the horseherb (which is native and had come back from the roots).


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