Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Friday, September 12, 2014

Naturalized Invasive Species

"It's a debate between this romantic idea of horses and conservationism and biology."
"[Science-based policy] is more difficult for some members of the public to buy into than this image of wonderful horses running wild on windswept offshore. But you have to differentiate between values and science."
"The island is in a stable state ... because the horses' arrival caused a rapid change to the system and then reached an equilibrium. But it's a degraded equilibrium from its natural state, and it will continue to have an impact on the ecosystem."
Ian Jones, ecosystems researcher
Handout   A group of young male horses drink at a freshwater pond on Sable Island.
"It's a touchy issue. I think the public has a view promulgated by a small number of individuals."
Philip Taylor, biology professor, Acadia University

"There is no consensus among ecologists and others working on Sable Island about the desirability of removing the horses. The horses have been on the island for centuries, and I believe the ecosystem is now in a steady-state condition with respect to their ecological effects."
Bill Freedman, professor of Botany, ecologist, Dalhousie University

"The horses are an integral part of the system as it exists today."
"With more than one-third of plant species being non-native -- to take [the horses] out -- it would be tinkering with the system."
"It's not going to go back to what Sable Island was in the 16th Century."
Philip Mcoughlin, researcher specialist in Sable Island horses

A federal body, not the Province of Nova Scotia, manages Sable Island. And Parks Canada has ruled out the relocation of the horses that have lived upon the island for centuries. Parks Canada is concerned among other issues, with overwhelming public opposition to relocating the Sable Island horses to the mainland. There is a living legend that horses swam to the island after a ship transporting them was wrecked during a storm at sea.

The truth appears to be somewhat more mundane, that the first horses to appear on Sable Island were deliberately brought there as farm animals. The theory is they may have been confiscated from the era of the Acadian expulsion from the Maritimes in the 18th Century. Mr. Jones finds their continued presence on the island troubling from an eco-system perspective, and deplores the idealization among the public of the horses' presence.

Quite a number of researchers studying the unwanted presence of invasive species suggest the island's fragile ecosystem should be preserved and this can only be accomplished, they insist, through the horses' removal. Their ongoing presence is causing desertification of the island as they consume vegetation and compact the soil with their hooves, they argue.

As far as Mr. Jones is concerned the horses, albeit naturalized to their remote environment, romantically running free with the wind and masters of all they survey, are no different than Lake Ontario's struggle with introduced zebra mussels, or fire ants' presence in the southern United States. Each of these species are far from their natural habitat and the predators that keep them in check; each has a history of ecosystems disruption in their unnatural relocation.

The wider public and some environmentalists who support the continued presence of the wild horses of Sable Island, come up against the condemnation of others who speak of the horses as "displaced farm animals". Where the Nova Scotia legislature's website speaks of them as "legendary wild horses", in language admiring of their resilience and their "will to survive in a harsh environment", Mr. Jones and his colleagues speak of this attitude as being scientifically deplorable.

According to Mr. Jones, the science-and-environment-ignorant public feasts on its delusions and their public outcry in support of the Sable Island horses remaining just where they are, is deleterious to the environment. He holds that fantasy-inspired rhetoric from advocacy groups and governmental organizations contributes to the horses' continued island presence. While Mr. Jones agrees the horses have a long history on the island, and that the ecosystem has adjusted to their patterns, he is relentless in his criticism.
Handout  A young foal rests on Sable Island.

On the other hand, not all scientists, botanists, biologists and environmentalists recognize the alarm that Mr. Jones signals over the situation. As ecologist Bill Freedman noted, over the centuries while the original horses adapted to their environment, the environment returned the compliment and they now appear to be fully accepting of each others' presence.

A family band of wild horses stand at a freshwater pond on Sable  Island.
Handout   A family band of wild horses stand at a freshwater pond on Sable Island.

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