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Puerto Rico Must Guard Against Invasive Species

The need to protect Puerto Rico from invasive species in the wake of Hurricane Maria came up just briefly in the letter Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) wrote to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney detailing the necessary response to Hurricane Maria’s destruction.

The mention of invasive species was buried in the section on risk mitigation for federal lands. Amid the list of needs for health, education, food, and other essential human needs, it would be easy to overlook this issue.

However, Puerto Rico is, as an island, particularly susceptible to destruction by invasive species. A larger habitat with more outside contact may already have predators to meet new creatures that come into the environment. On an island, a new life form may enter an empty environmental niche and have no predators or competitors to stop it.

Harmful plants, animals, and insects including those that spread tropical diseases have caused problems in Puerto Rico already. The Global Invasive Species database already lists 152 such species, including the mosquito that carries yellow fever and a mongoose responsible for 70% of all cases of rabies on the Island.

While the hurricane may reduce the strength of invasive plants in the rain forest, it could also give invasive reptiles the opportunity to increase population size. With no predators, invasive snakes and iguanas have already been a problem. The time required for reforestation could make this situation worse.

Hurricane Maria’s effects

The response to a hurricane typically involves a spike in travel and in the movement of cargo. These are both common vectors for invasive species, as new plants and animals can be brought in by ships and planes. In a chaotic situation where containers may be in place for longer than usual and with less than the usual degree of control, invasive species have better opportunities to reach the Island.

Hurricanes and flooding also move species around without human intervention. While this can be more of an issue on the mainland, the extensive damage and upheaval in Puerto Rico is likely to lead not only to physical movement of species across the island, but also to changes in the local environment that may give invasive species a chance.

Movement of infested materials from one place to another naturally spreads the infestation.Some invasive species are natural pests or disease vectors. Others threaten native species and the local habitat. Invasive snakes are known to damage electric power lines, and could increase the already severe problems Puerto Rico faces with utilities.

It’s hard to predict which invasive species might be introduced, or how they will affect the Island. New species can also spread from Puerto Rico to other places — including the mainland United States, as ships and planes carry people and cargo from Puerto Rico to the States.

Control of invasive species can be very difficult once a breeding population is established. This is a problem that must be addressed sooner rather than later.

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