Panel of women researchers discuss ethics in managing invasive species

Without analyzing the intersectionality of species’ relationships to all environmental factors, including invasive species, restorative practices can be skewed.

By Jordan Hemmerly.

Three women in the field, with hard hats and tools, including chain saw, for clearing brush.
A panel discussion hosted by UH Hilo focused on the concepts presented in a recently published paper, which examines political language used to describe and manage invasive species. Above, working and conducting research in the field in 2018 are three of the paper’s co-authors, from left, Susan Cordell, Becky Ostertag, and Amanda Uowolo. (Courtesy photo)

In conjunction with a philosophy course on conservation ethics and environmental justice, the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo hosted a virtual roundtable discussion focusing on a recently published article that examines political language used to describe and manage invasive species.

The article, “Species Home-making in Ecosystems: Toward Place-Based Ecological Metrics of Belonging,” was recently published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

On the panel was lead author of the paper Susan Cordell from the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, a U.S. Department of Forest Service agency based in Hilo. Co-authors, also on the panel: UH Hilo philosophy professor Celia Bardwell-Jones, UH Hilo biology professor Rebecca Ostertag, restoration ecologist Nicole DiManno, and Amanda Uowolo from the forestry institute.

The virtual discussion, held in March during Women’s History Month, also included UH Hilo students and community members.

Within the context of invasive species, the group conversed on the human interpretation of language and how negatively posed words can carry connotations beyond their dictionary definition.

Celia Bardwell-Jones pictured
Celia Bardwell Jones

“Exclusion or inclusion isn’t actually representative of the paradigm we have to work with,” says Prof. Bardwell-Jones, who teaches and researches conservation ethics and environmental justice that intersect with social politics.

Environmental justice

Four of the authors have worked on Liko Nā Pilina, a UH Hilo hybrid ecosystems project to restore degraded Hawaiian lowland wet forests using both native and non-invasive, non-native species. Ostertag and Cordell are two of the project founders and Uowolo and DiManno have both worked on field, outreach, and administration of this research project. DiManno received her master of science in tropical conservation biology and environmental science from UH Hilo in 2011. Cordell is an affiliate faculty member at UH Hilo who serves in an advisory role for the graduate program.

While celebrating women’s intellectual work, the panel discussion challenged the assumption that while all native species are to be treated as good, all non-native species are to be treated as undesirable. This concept is referred to as “the native/non-native binary.”

“The idea of invasive species is kind of a first-world problem,” says lead author Cordell. “Some places don’t have the liberty of philosophizing about plants, especially in developing countries, where all plants generate value simply because they are there and they can be used.”

The researchers say that although all species require other species in order to thrive, those needs can often be met by non-native or invasive species. Inherent language bias against considering all possible solutions can perpetuate a lack of investigation of how the totality of species interact.

“When I started working in the field of immigration law I also became interested in themes of environmental justice,” says Bardwell Jones. “What I discovered in the literature about invasive species is that it can often mirror the types of language people can use about issues of human immigration.”

“What does it mean to be documented, undocumented, native, or non-native? What is the best ecological solution and how does it tie into the principles of justice? These are questions I became particularly suspicious of in my own research.”

Future-forward restoration

Panel members say that in a black-and-white fashion, without analyzing the intersectionality of species’ relationships to all environmental factors and other species around them can result in a skewed perspective of restorative practices.

“We as humans are making choices about ecosystems that can change the kind of world we live in,” says Professor of Biology Ostertag, who researches long-term forest dynamics in relation to climate change, nutrient cycling, invasive species, functional traits, and restoration ecology. “In many cases we cannot restore historical conditions because the entire world has been affected by human interactions.”

Cordell’s work includes extensive research in biocultural science and ecosystem stewardship. “One of the notions I always carried with me is that all pristine forests needed to be entirely untouched. It’s funny to look back on that mindset because it’s such an outdated way to think about things.”

“Our planet is bathing in higher carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide levels than ever recorded,” says Ostertag. “There is no getting back exactly what has been lost.”

Nicole DiManno Martin pictured
Nicole DiManno Martin
Amanda Uowolo pictured
Amanda Uowolo

The panelists note that some major considerations relevant to productive ecological restoration efforts include factors such as which types of animals may impact or aide in seed dispersal, how climate change has impacted the area, what types of cultural practices require specific resources to be grown in specific places, or what types of trees will be needed to provide adequate shade or cover from rain for lower species.

“We know invasive species have impacts,” says co-author of the paper Amanda Uowolo, an ecologist with the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry Program. “I know we get into the binary thought process of native versus non-native.”

“Through being around invasive species I know my brain was trained to think good or bad. When I moved into restoration and ecoforestry my perspective really opened up,” she says.

The panel also included Nicole DiManno Martin, who previously worked as a senior plant ecological technician on the Liko Nā Pilina Project at UH Hilo for over eight years.

“Being immersed and surrounded by invasive species is fascinating,” she says. “It can spur all kinds of amazing questions. Restoration work is all about adaptive management, troubleshooting, and what the best course of problem solving might be. It’s a truly humbling experience to work toward the types of innovative solutions that are needed.”

Related story

Where biology and philosophy meet: Paper published on the “political language” of restoration ecology

By Jordan Hemmerly, who is earning her bachelor’s degree in marine science at UH Hilo.