Surprisingly enough, the newest frontline in the campaign to protect America’s homeland is the battle against invasive species. Researchers at Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution are spearheading consulting projects for the Office of Homeland Security (OHS) analyzing the contents of insect traps set around America’s largest ports of entry in order to determine how threatening some of the creepy crawlies coming into the U.S. just might be.
“Most scientists don’t believe it’s easy to do something like arrive with a pocketful of bug eggs and sprinkle them in a field outside Columbus, Ohio, and then go home while they devastate crops or forests,” reports John Rawlins, head of invertebrate zoology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “The monster is not Osama here. The monster is the unmonitored flow of invasive taxa, like wood borers, that can do extensive damage. Even in the absence of 9/11, that problem would still be with us.”
Meanwhile, OHS spokesperson Erlinda Byrd reported that her agency has trained and installed 1,800 agricultural specialists at major ports of entry throughout the U.S. to find invasive species knowlingly or unknowingly brought into the country. According to Byrd, OHS-sanctioned researchers now confiscate more than 1,000 different meat and plant materials coming across our borders every day, not to mention as many as 145 agricultural insect pests. “Most are not intentional, but the fact that the port inspections were moved from immigration officers to Homeland Security indicates there was some concern,” she says, adding that her agency’s primary mission is still to keep man-made terrorist weapons out.
While OHS may have only been paying attention to the invasive species problem for a few years, the issue is not new. According to Rawlins, invasive pests such as the gypsy moth, elm span worm, hemlock wooly adelgid and others have been wreaking havoc on U.S. forests, farms and greenhouses for decades. But with only a minority of the world’s insects catalogued by scientists, researchers worry that the next wave of invasive species could make these initial conquerors seem downright placid.