Tackling Invasive Animal Species in North America

Dealing with North America’s invasive animal species can eliminate an environmental hazard while putting food on our plates.

Armadillos are one of many invasive species.

If left unchecked, invasive animal species – like the armadillo – severely threaten the habitats and lives of plant and animal species native to North America.

Photo by Fotolia/Steve Byland

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North America is under attack! Invasive animal species such as armadillos, Asian carp and many others are devouring native plants and animals, pushing some to the brink of extinction. Jackson Landers is trying to help eliminate the problem. Eating Aliens (Storey Publishing, 2012) is his tale of hunting and eating 14 destructive animal species. In the following excerpt from the Introduction, Landers suggests that eating invasive animal species not only spices up our dinner plates, but helps the environment.

This book can be purchased from the GRIT store: Eating Aliens

Introducing Invasive Animal Species

The nature I see around my home in Virginia is not particularly natural. Sure, I can stand in a field, surrounded by plants, without a building in sight. Birds sing and insects buzz through the air. Upon close inspection, though, it becomes clear that most of these creatures don’t actually belong here. 

Dandelions, brought to America by European colonists who grew the plant in gardens as a vegetable, sprout everywhere. They’re visited by European honeybees, which are (as their name indicates) also nonnative. Crabgrass, tree of paradise, the Japanese beetle, and the Asian lady beetle are everywhere, and they’re all invaders. In the trees, imported starlings and sparrows congregate in vast flocks, denying nesting cavities to our native bluebirds and purple martins.

Beyond my own backyard, North America is besieged by bigger creatures that were introduced in folly. Across California and much of the South, feral swine root up large areas of ground, transforming the habitat and causing erosion. They eat native salamanders and the eggs of ground-nesting birds. Asian carp, some coming in at more than fifty pounds, eat up to forty percent of their body weight in plant matter every day. Long stretches of the Missouri River are now populated almost exclusively by invasive carp, and the native fish are pushed closer and closer to extinction.

Florida may be past all hope, with the Everglades riddled with some two hundred thousand reticulated pythons eating their way through what was once a delicately balanced ecosystem. In many parts of the state, iguanas up to six feet long devour every plant in sight. With no local predators adapted to eating them, they reproduce unchecked. Nile monitor lizards, often five feet long, hunt along suburban Florida canals, preying on household pets and whatever other small animals venture too close.

Each of these creatures individually is doing what its instinct tells it to do. In their sum, though, they are forcing many native plants and animals to the brink of extinction. In each of these cases, there have been efforts by state and federal wildlife agencies to remove the destructive invaders. Money is spent, good science is done, but government programs have been unable to keep up with the scale of the problem.

It’s easy to shrug and say the problem is so big, the numbers of starlings and carp so great, that humans couldn’t possibly get rid of them all. But consider that human beings have historically succeeded in eliminating animals in such numbers. Recklessly, we’ve driven many formerly plentiful species to extinction or to extirpation from a section of their range. The difference is motivation, not capability.

The passenger pigeon is an example of an animal people have killed and eaten into extinction. In 1800, the passenger pigeon was the most plentiful bird in the Americas and perhaps in the world. There were billions of them in North America alone. One hundred and fourteen years later, there was just one — one pigeon, named Martha, who died in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. What happened?

People happened. In their vast flocks, numbering in the millions, pigeons could be shot in great numbers by market hunters, who sold the meat to grocers. Passenger pigeon became the least expensive meat you could buy; it was the chicken of its day. In the absence of bag limits and meaningful hunting regulations, there was no check on the desire for personal gain that motivated the shooting.

What would have happened if nobody wanted to eat passenger pigeons? Certainly the species was in trouble anyway, because of habitat loss, but if people hadn’t developed a taste for the bird, there might still be large flocks of them today.

A Change of Perspective

Can this human ability to harvest wild food in dangerously efficient ways be harnessed for a good ecological cause? I believe it can. If invasive animal species such as starlings and Asian carp were rediscovered by Americans as desirable food sources, we would clear our sky and water of them, just as surely as we’ve wiped out so many native plants and animals.

Really, what we choose to eat is often a matter of perspective and tradition rather than an informed judgment based on what something tastes like. Most of these problem species have either previously been considered to be good eating by humans or still are by people in other parts of the world. Asian carp is a beloved food in China. The Spanish make starlings into a prized pâté. Iguanas have been eaten as a staple protein in most of their native range — from Mexico to Brazil — for thousands of years.

Fortunately, there is a precedent for Americans doing a complete about-face on the suitability of odd-looking creatures for food. During colonial times, lobsters were considered edible only by the most desperate segments of the population. Household servants would include provisions in their contracts stating that they could not be fed lobster more than four times a week. Today, lobster sells for around ten dollars a pound at the grocery store — more than most cuts of beef. What transformed lobster from peasant food into a delicacy was simply a change in perspective.

In North America, with hundreds of species of native plants, birds, insects, and animals threatened by alien species, it’s time we started changing our perspective. By hunting and eating invasive animal species, we can help restore habitat for native species, as well as reduce our dependence on factory-farmed meat and eat more locally, thus decreasing the costs associated with transportation (odds are, there are edible invasives to be found close to your own home). If you’re going to eat meat, you might as well do it in a way that’s ecologically helpful. In some cases, I’ve found that invasive species could be harvested on a commercial scale and sold. In other cases, only a grassroots effort by dedicated locavores will be practical.

It’s quite an emotional leap to make, especially for those of us who didn’t grow up hunting and fishing, but it’s one that can be made, with practice and experience. As a professional hunting instructor who teaches adult beginners and grew up in a vegetarian household, I have a lot of sympathy for people who are slowly warming up to the idea of killing for food. Understand, though, that the skills and tools I describe throughout this book can be acquired, and it’s possible to overcome the normal reluctance to, for example, gut and scale a fish.

Part of what makes this leap possible is the realization that you’re playing a part in helping to fix an ecological disaster in progress. If you can do this, you’ll feel better about your place in the world. Your food will have a deeper meaning than the price tag and calorie count, and you’ll value the time you spent outdoors in pursuit of it. Making the leap changed my life, and it could change yours, too.

While writing this book, I spent about sixteen months traveling around the United States and the Caribbean, hunting and fishing for invasive animal species. The process didn’t happen quite the way that I’d expected it would, however. Not every species turned out to be the problem that it had been made out to be; at the same time, I ran into other invasive species I’d had no idea were even out there.

In the beginning, I thought I was hitting the road simply to find and eat invasive wildlife. It usually turned out that the bigger issues were with human beings. Human activity has caused the introduction of many invasive species that threaten the survival of native wildlife. Every invasive species is native somewhere, and in most cases that is the place where we should have left it.

Excerpted from Eating Aliens (c) Jackson Landers used with permission from Storey Publishing. Purchase this book from our store: Eating Aliens.