Beetles Attack! | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

March 11, 2009 News » Cover Story

Beetles Attack! 

An imported leaf-eating bug is chewing up the scenery from Moab to Salt Lake City.

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When University of Utah biologist Kevin Hultine went down to where the Colorado River meets the Dolores at Dewey Bridge, just outside Moab, one afternoon in June 2006, he was shocked. Along the Colorado River, the dense, green thickets of tamarisk plants he had seen just a week before had turned brown.

At first, he thought a local pest was killing them. “I had no idea it was something that was introduced,” Hultine says. The culprit, he learned, was a strain of beetle that federal scientists imported from Kazakhstan, a central-Asian country once part of the Soviet Union. They’d been released by Grand County’s weed-management department chief Tim Higgs.

Tamarisk is an exotic invasive plant that has undeniably changed the landscape of the Southwestern United States. “It’s the principle invasive species that has caused damage to the health of the river system in the West,” says Tim Carlson, head of the Tamarisk Coalition, a Grand Junction, Colo.-based nonprofit dedicated to restoring native plant communities to riverbanks and flood plains.

Introduced in the early 1800s to combat riverbank erosion, tamarisk then spread through the waterways of Utah, Arizona, California and New Mexico, choking out native plant species and making access to many rivers all but impossible. Moreover, it posed a significant fire risk because of its flammability. Tamarisk now covers 2 million acres in the Southwestern United States and Mexico. In Utah, 26 counties suffer from tamarisk infestations. Its phenomenal growth rate aside, its worst crime is allegedly thirst. Estimates released in 2000 of the value of water it sucked up were $169 million to $362 million annually. Hultine says that figure is inflated, based on the belief a single tamarisk plant consumes 250 gallons of water a day. “Sheer physics means it can’t drink that much,” Hultine says.

However, while it doesn’t consume much more water than native species like cottonwood and willow, it does grow more densely, particularly in areas native plants don’t.

Its thirsty image made tamarisk for weed managers and federal agencies their Public Enemy No. 1, the weed equivalent of Saddam Hussein. Hultine says the attitude of many in state and federal resource agencies was, “Get rid of it at all costs!”

Controlled fires, herbicides, mechanical removal—all were of limited effectiveness and expensive to boot. So, in the early 1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture imported what it hoped would be its own weapon of mass destruction when it came to the supposed water guzzler—beetles that fed on tamarisk in its Eurasian homelands.

Former Grand County Weed Board member Kara Dohrenwend says using one exotic species to knock back another makes her nervous. “One got out of control. What’s to say the other wouldn’t?” Indeed, the Bureau of Land Management’s Lisa Bryant acknowledges that, while there have been successful weed bio-control programs, “there have [also] been cases of bio-control going awry.”

The case of the much-ballyhooed tamarisk-eating beetle may be one of them. Hultine is shortly publishing with a group of scientists a paper about the tamarisk beetle program. The subtitle runs gloomily: “An event underway with significant ecological and societal implications.” The research cites potential loss of migrant bird populations, riverbank erosion, the invasion of even more noxious weeds such as Russian knapweed, and “a high probability for a negative outcome.”

Hultine and his fellow authors aren’t the only ones up in arms. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is “really pissed off and looking for someone to nail,” says Dan Bean, USDA entomologist. In a frank internal memo dated Nov. 10, 2008, the FWS Arizona office stated, “We believe tamarisk bio-control poses a serious risk to the recovery of the flycatcher and the status of riparian-dependent wildlife in Arizona and New Mexico, and possibly in California, Southwestern Colorado, and Southern Nevada and Utah.”

The Southwestern willow flycatcher is an endangered songbird ironically cited as “possibly the most successful example of […] effective recovery action,” in Endangered Species Bulletin. Now, thanks to the tamarisk-leaf-eating beetle’s progress into Arizona, the flycatcher’s “sneezy song,” which the bulletin charmingly describes as “Fitz-Bew,” may fade—at least in this habitat. The source for this ecological invasion came from an “unauthorized” beetle release according to the memo—a November 2006 distribution in St. George. St. George’s assistant city manager and spokesman Marc Mortensen says Fish & Wildlife Service, the state division of wildlife services and the state forestry service all knew about the release and gave it their blessing.

Either way, according to federal documents, the release led to a pissing match between Fish & Wildlife Service and the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service [APHIS], over APHIS’ “sponsoring the distribution in Utah” of the beetles, a FWS e-mail fumed. Oddly, even as the distribution was encouraged by APHIS’ Richfield office, its national agency was conducting a mandatory environmental-impact study on whether to expand the beetle’s release from a series of test sites. That study came out in June 2005, excluding APHIS from distributing the beetle in Utah. In November 2005, the agency’s Richfield office entomologist Greg Abbott nevertheless gave a PowerPoint presentation to the St. George City Council encouraging it to collect and release beetles on the Virgin River.

In this tale of broken promises, seeming regulatory side-stepping by APHIS’ Richfield office and several scientific miscalculations, it’s not surprising, Hultine says, that the beetle has now affected almost all of Utah, rendering the Beehive State a testing ground for the voracious, plant-defoliating import. River rafters in southern Utah this summer will confront at least 150 miles of once-verdant, now brown, hard-to-restore river banks. The beetle has even been munching on Salt Lake City tamarisk for several years. The insect, Hultine says, “is what we’ve got to live with, for better or worse.”

Hultine recently attended a Reno, Nev., conference on bio-control. Texas-based scientists announced a plan to tackle one of the anticipated problems of tamarisk defoliation—the rise in dominance of another invasive species in its place, the Russian Olive. The scientists are proposing introducing yet another exotic invasive to tackle it, which, Hultine says, “can’t help but raise more concerns.”

In 1990, two entomologists, one Chinese, the other a native of the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, identified the Diorhabda elongata leaf beetle as a possible bio-control agent for tamarisk, a plant also known as salt cedar, in the United States. After four years of lab testing to ensure the bugs would feed only on tamarisk, the program had passed “all regulatory hurdles and was ready to roll,” says USDA entomologist Bean. Then it hit a significant snag. “The Southwestern willow flycatcher was listed as endangered, and that put the brakes on the whole situation,” Bean says.

In a June 1999 letter from an assistant director at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service office to the deputy director of Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the ecologist wrote, “Research on the [beetles] in their native habitats and in laboratories […] indicates that they should move on the order of tens of feet per year.” This slow pace, combined with large adjacent geographical areas without tamarisk, would protect the flycatcher populations that nest in tamarisk on the Lower Colorado River in Arizona and the Rio Grande in New Mexico from the beetle’s impact. Fish & Wildlife Service signed off on the release because it was “not likely to adversely affect the Southwestern willow flycatcher,” according to the FWS letter. Or so the feds thought.

Because of the flycatcher, Bean says, the bio-control rules were changed. The first releases of caged beetles were to be in seven specific experimental sites in 1999. After two years, scientists lifted the cages and released the beetles. “The beetles crashed in California, did pretty well in Nevada, Wyoming, and OK in Pueblo, Colorado, but the site near Delta, Utah, was a major success,” Bean says.

Texas-based USDA entomologist and bio-control guru C. Jack DeLoach requested in March 2003 that the beetle be released at additional sites. Fish & Wildlife Service agreed on the basis “that bio-control activities would not occur within a 200-mile radius of [flycatcher] occupied [tamarisk].” First, however, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, an APHIS environmental assessment had to be conducted.

Some Utahns found such regulatory processes frustrating. The BLM’s Bryant, who heads up Utah’s soil/weed programs, sees what happened next this way: “Everybody was excited to have a good bio-control to deal with the tamarisk,” she says. “It led to people being more proactive about it and less cautious.”

Grand County weed manager Tim Higgs claims APHIS’ Greg Abbott, who was lead investigator on the Delta site, told weed-control managers if “we wanted to put [the Delta beetles] on private or state land, we could go and collect it and do it.” While Abbott told Higgs the agency couldn’t help him with picking up the bugs, he said, “they could show you what the damage [defoliation] was.”

Abbott declined an interview request from City Weekly. He said legal action by the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity against APHIS and the USDA over the songbird prevented him from talking. Abbott denied, however, that APHIS had any involvement in the distribution of beetles in Utah.

Whether due to Abbott’s promptings or not, numerous county weed managers and land owners in 2004 visited the Delta site and took beetles home.

In 2005, APHIS released its environmental assessment of the tamarisk beetle project in 14 states. In all, 13 states were authorized to release the beetle on federal land. Utah was specifically excluded, the report noted, because the beetle had already been distributed there. The report expressed concern over beetles being “‘poached’ from current research sites and illegally distributed to new locations.”

Utah state authorities continued promoting the beetles’ existence, say Dan Bean and Tamarisk Coalition’s Tim Carlson. The University of Southern Utah [USU] Integrated Pest Management extention organized a conference in June 2005—the month APHIS published its report—with guest speakers C. Jack DeLoach and APHIS’ entomologist Greg Abbott. DeLoach and Abbott’s bosses got cold feet and told them they couldn’t go. The conference’s plan to collect and distribute beetles throughout Utah by county weed managers and private landowners was also cancelled. Utah’s beetle fans were unfazed. A USU report on the conference noted that “many of the workshop attendees” came back on their own time, gathered beetles and distributed them throughout the state.

While such a haphazard approach seems to go against the very grain of a bio-control program’s rigorous monitoring protocols, Bean sympathizes with the weed managers. “We have all this tamarisk on our land, and we’re spending huge amounts of money to get rid of it. What’s the hangup when we can go over and get some coffee cans full of beetles and dump them?” That said, Colorado weed managers have to go through Bean’s office to collect and distribute beetles, because, he says with a laugh, “I saw what happened in Utah.”

When BLM’s Utah weed boss Lisa Bryant found out about the unauthorized Utah releases, she says she was concerned about public perception. “I was afraid it would have a backlash on the program,” she says. Most of the sites were unsuccessful. “A lot were wiped out by ants, birds, froze or were drowned,” Bryant says.

The federal government manages 42 percent of Utah land. Bryant acknowledges attending meetings of the Utah Weed Control Association—which is made up of federal, state and local agencies, along with private entities—where discussions focused on deliberately releasing the beetle on private property adjacent to federal land. People at the table knew the beetles would spread to federal land—effectively getting the beetles to do the dirty work for them. “I was very clear I was not covering up my ears and going, ‘La-la-la,’” Bryant says. She told her field-office staff a backdoor approach to knocking back the tamarisk on federal land was unacceptable. “That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened; I know people were considering that.”

Scientists involved with the release program all express admiration for the rigorous way Grand County weed manager Tim Higgs handled his Moab beetle releases after federal and public consultation. The first year, in 2005, he released 50,000 beetles on three separate sites. “I went into the tamarisk thicket area where we had permission, cut open the box and let the beetles go out on their own,” Higgs says. “We didn’t have to pay for any of it.”

The first year the beetles defoliated, if not killed more than 1.6 hectares. In 2006, the beetles gobbled up 4,050 hectares. In 2007, Higgs recalls, the beetles were everywhere in Moab. “It was like driving in a rainstorm; they just kept hitting windows,” he says.

That summer, recalls Kara Dohrenwend, who in addition to having served on the Grand County Weed Board operates Moab restorative landscape company Wildland Scapes, “the entire river corridor went brown from Potash Plant to Dewey Bridge in one week. Suddenly, all the tamarisk lost their leaves. It was weird; it looked like fall in the middle of summer.” Dohrenwend’s business, it should be noted, stands to benefit from the busy beetle’s appetite for tamarisk leaves.

In a 2006 visit to Moab, BLM’s Bryant was as surprised as many others involved in the release program by the dramatic brown-out. “We just didn’t know. We had the same information as everybody else, that it would travel tens of meters. All of a sudden, we’re finding out it moves quite a bit faster, 12 miles up- and downstream from the original release site.”

If 2006 was dramatic, 2008 was even more so. Beetle-induced browning stretched along 150 miles of the Colorado, Dolores and Green rivers. In total, it covered 646,279 hectares—more than two-thirds of the county.

If the beetles’ head-snapping explosion in Moab during the summer of 2007 gave many pause, worse was in store for St. George, which lies on the Wild and Scenic-classified Virgin River. The beetles’ presence there dates back to a Nov. 10, 2005, special meeting, when the St. George City Council approved “a trial use of the […] beetle on city-owned property,” according to council minutes.

Those minutes also reveal APHIS’ Richfield entomologist, Greg Abbott, gave a PowerPoint presentation prior to the vote on “the benefits of using the beetle to control tamarisk.”

Abbott’s presentation to St. George officials was intriguing. If APHIS was involved in the St. George release, it might, as a federal agency, be accused of advocating lawbreaking, given that the town sits beside critical habitat for the willow flycatcher, a songbird under federal protection.

The first BLM’s Utah weed chief Lisa Bryant knew of the St. George release was when it hit the news. “We were trying to work with APHIS and Fish & Wildlife to allow use of the beetle on BLM land in Utah. That kind of action betrays trust among federal lands managers, so it makes it hard.”

St. George assistant city manager Marc Mortensen says the beetles were released because tamarisk is “a huge fire danger.” In 2003, 30 to 40 acres of tamarisk ignited after children played with fireworks. The tamarisk “burns like hot rubber,” Mortensen says. Seven homes caught fire. Two years later, floodwaters channeled by dense tamarisk stands caused $100 million of property damage, Mortensen says.

After the 2005 flood, St. George and other neighboring communities set up the lower Virgin River Fire Council to tackle tamarisk, Mortensen says. It includes employees of U.S. Fish & Wildlife, the State Division of Wildlife Resources and state forestry services, who all agreed to the release, Mortensen notes, even if they were skeptical the beetle would take hold. Research to that point indicated that, south of the 38th parallel north, the insects would enter premature diapause—or dormancy—and fail to reproduce. St. George is at the 37th parallel.

What surprisingly did not cause skepticism among the fire council was that St. George is home to two willow flycatcher nests, according to Mortensen, although University of Southern California professor and entomologist Tom Dudley says there are “less than a dozen” in all. One presenter noted at the Reno, Nev., conference this February that, as far as a flycatcher nest was concerned, beetle defoliation of the tamarisk was akin to having the roof blown off your house each year as you’re trying to raise children.

The St. George city street division initially released several thousand beetles at a test site near a wastewater-treatment plant in July 2006. Reportedly, 100,000 beetles in all were set loose. The BLM’s Bryant recalls attending meetings in 2003, where, she says, scientists “did not expect [the beetle] to be able to adjust in its photo period”—to adapt to shorter summer day lengths from St. George southward. Yet, in the summer of 2008, Fish & Wildlife Service’ employees sighted the beetle in willow flycatcher territory in Arizona.

“It’s hard to tell the beetle not to go into Arizona,” Mortsensen says dryly. The adventurous tamarisk beetle had traveled along the Virgin River and crossed the border. How could that be possible if scientists had assured the feds they would not breed south of the 38th parallel? There was only one answer: The voracious beetles were evolving and adapting.

Alarm bells went off in Washington, D.C. Fish & Wildlife Division of Endangered Species biologist John Fay advised an APHIS ecologist his people were reporting, according to an internal e-mail, “that [the beetle] is going gangbusters in Southwestern willow flycatcher habitat in Arizona. […] He thought it might require a consultation with BLM. He said things are going to get ugly.”

Multiple whistleblowers within numerous agencies contacted the Flagstaff, Ariz., Center for Biological Diversity and told experts there the beetle was spreading into flycatcher habitat. The nonprofit center originally secured the flycatcher’s endangered listing back in 1995 after three years of legal battles.

As the center’s co-founder Robin Silver investigated, he was astonished to find that two key promises by APHIS to Fish & Wildlife had been broken. One was not to release the beetles within 200 miles of flycatcher breeding areas. The other was that “despite assurances the beetle wouldn’t have reproduction below the 38th north parallel, they were reproducing—and reproducing vigorously.”

A joint handout from the Utah, Nevada and Arizona Fish & Wildlife Resources offices titled “Not Wanted in Arizona—Tamarisk Leaf Beetles” includes a photograph of a flycatcher nest in defoliated tamarisk on the Virgin River by St. George that was subsequently abandoned. For Silver, the nest’s fate is clear evidence a “take” occurred—an illegal destruction of an endangered species’ nest by humans. USC’s Dudley doesn’t agree. “The nest failure” he says, where the beetles defoliated the trees, “occurred simultaneously.” It’s not, he says, “a consequential loss due to bio-control.” Mortensen says he’s unfamiliar with any nest losses.

For Dudley, the concern over the flycatcher is a red herring when it comes to the future of the Southwestern riparian landscape. “It’s a classic case of single-species management gone awry.” For the sake of one species, “conserving the whole ecosystem has fallen to the wayside.”

But Silver had seen enough. On Dec. 12, 2008, he notified the national chiefs of APHIS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture of the center’s intent to sue the federal agencies “for failing to reinitiate Endangered Species Act consultation with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service regarding jeopardy to the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher resulting from [the agencies’] release of the tamarisk-defoliating leaf beetle within nesting areas and critical habitat.” The center plans to file a lawsuit shortly, Silver says.

Dudley thinks the St. George releases were probably legal. APHIS’ Abbott, he says, rather than promoting the release, gave out information. Once the beetle was established in the state, “then technically [APHIS] was no longer responsible if nonfederal people are doing transfers afterwards.”

On a cold February afternoon, self-described plant geek and former Grand County Weed Board member Kara Dohrenwend and University of Utah biologist Kevin Hultine work their way through a blackened section of the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve north of Moab. A fire in October 2008 swept through the preserve, temporarily shutting down one of the region’s most popular attractions. The smell of ash lingers in the air; the tamarisk resembles a skeletal forest of languid black hair follicles.

Dohrenwend and Hultine break through the foliage to the riverbank. Swathes of brown tamarisk that have fallen prey to the beetle’s unquenchable appetite line the banks of the Colorado. “Nobody had any idea how intensive the change would be,” Dohrenwend says about the impact of the beetle on Moab’s river landscape.

Hultine argues the sheer cost makes it impossible to do active restoration in many remote areas. The best solution might be, he says, to leave healthy tamarisk alone. Entomologist Bean disagrees. “Doing nothing is […] allowing an invasion to continue that was started many years ago.”

With the much-anticipated savings in water through tamarisk removal under question, the rationale for the beetle-release program looks increasingly debatable. More ominous, however, is the beetle’s future ecological impact. Hultine and his co-authors warn in their yet-to-be published paper that “in the absence of restoration, losses in ecosystem services through enhanced sedimentation behind dams, enhanced distribution of noxious weeds, reduced habitat quality, and significant socio-economic impacts among many other services will be inevitable.”

Other concerns were raised in a Fish & Wildlife Service November 2008 memo. One was that, despite scientific forecasts of an 80 percent tamarisk kill rate over three years, the beetles were only managing 25 to 50 percent, with the plants re-sprouting in the autumn. This creates an abundance of leaf litter that may increase the risk of fire. The memo also warned that if beetles continue to thrive in the lower latitudes and indeed move farther south, land managers feared an “adverse effect on flycatchers and other migratory and nesting riparian-obligate wildlife” all the way down the Colorado river and into Mexico.

The beetle’s travel itinerary now includes Salt Lake City. In 2007, Wasatch Front Lands ecologist Ben Bloodworth released 40,000 Delta-site beetles on 25 acres of tamarisk on state-owned land close to the Jordan River by Bangerter Highway. He released another 30,000 in 2008.

This far north, the beetle hasn’t been as prolific. Bloodworth has restored a mile of Jordan River front to native flora and fauna. “I want to do it right; I don’t want to mess up,” he says. The last thing he wants is “ending up with miles and miles of brown river like we’re getting in points west.”

The beetle, it seems, is here to stay. “The question is whether we can find out enough information to mitigate the negative impact of the beetle,” Hultine says.

Whatever information researchers can dig up, one thing is certain, he adds. “Pandora’s Box is open.”

Beetle photos credit Bob Richard, USDA APHIS PPQ, United States

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