Something I missed at first in the Monday NY Times:
“Ninety-nine percent of the ashes in North America are probably going to die,” said Andrew M. Liebhold, a research entomologist with the United States Forest Service.emphasis added
Nobody was really studying the ecology of ash forests until the borers began destroying them. But now scientists are beginning to see what that change might look like.
A 2009 study in the journal Biological Invasions listed 43 native insect species that rely on ash trees for food or breeding. Those insects are the food supply for birds, including woodpeckers.
More below the Orange Omnilepticon.
The problem is this. The emerald ash borer is an insect invader that is normally found in Asia. It is believed to have arrived in North America in ash wood used to reinforce shipping crates. Here, its life style is fatal to North American ash trees. It has no native enemies here, nor diseases.
It had been thought its numbers were small enough and its arrival recent enough that it would be possible to control its spread and eliminate it. It now appears it has been here much longer and is so thoroughly established, eradication is not possible. Estimates vary on how bad the damage is going to be. There are a number of ash species in North America and they differ in their vulnerability. According to the NY Times a bit further down the article by Maggie Koerth-Baker,
The emerald ash borers’ effect may not be as dire as Dr. Liebhold predicts. Dr. McCullough, the entomologist at Michigan State, noted that the bugs’ conquest varied by tree species and location. Of the four major species, black ash and green ash are probably lost, but the beetles kill only 60 percent to 70 percent of blue ash. White ash falls somewhere in between.* wikipedia gives a number of 8 billion ash trees in the United States.
And while the eight million ash trees* in wild forests cannot really be protected, ash trees in the city may stand a chance because of the development of new insecticides.
There's nothing new about this, unfortunately. Humans are constantly rearranging the planet for their own convenience, with unintended consequences. Without more money for surveillance, without more money for all of the other resources needed to watch for and prevent the transfer of species into habitats where they don't fit, this will continue to happen. It has, after all, happened before.
Unless you are in your sixties or older, you probably don't remember how different America used to look with elm trees. The American chestnut has been gone for a long time too. While there are survivors of both, their numbers are a shadow of what they once were.
What's a greater challenge isn't the loss of species like this. It's what are we going to do with the new tools we've been developing recently?
Scientific American reports that a new generation of chestnut trees may be able to thrive once more thanks to genetic engineering.
...By taking genes from wheat, Asian chestnuts, grapes, peppers and other plants and inserting them into American chestnut trees, William Powell of S.U.N.Y.–ESF and scores of collaborators have created hundreds of transgenic trees that are almost 100 percent genetically identical wild American chestnut yet immune to C. parasitica. The scientists hope to get federal approval to begin planting these trees in the forest within the next five years...What was undone by accident may be mended by intent - IF we are prepared to accept the responsibilities and consequences of using the techniques of molecular biology in this effort. Given the antipathy to GMO food crops (plant and animal) which is seen among a certain percentage of the public, what will be the response to using genetic modification to 'repair' damage to vulnerable ecosystems?
The Scientific American article details a number of ways in which chestnut trees shaped the forests. They've been gone so long, we really can't appreciate what we're missing - but it looks like their contribution was not inconsequential. Indeed, restoring the chestnut might facilitate efforts to recreate another famously extinct species: the Passenger Pigeon.
There's one more thing to consider. Climate Change. It's already changing planting zones; plants in the wild can't exactly get up and chase the climate they need. To preserve functional ecosystems, we may have no choice but to use genetic modification techniques to adapt species to the changing climate we're subjecting them to - or prepare to see ecosystems degrade and unravel.
Whatever we choose to do, we're definitely going to need to budget for the science we'll need to support it. We're already running up a tab for damages - we better start budgeting for whatever we can do for amelioration and adaptation. Doing nothing is a false economy.