A Red List for Trees!

16 dead sweet bay + grpF.T. Campbell  dead sweetbay, Florida Everglades

At the global level, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) is the recognized leader in conservation.  Information from the IUCN’s Red List has been widely used to inform conservation policies and legislation, as a tool for environmental monitoring and reporting, and to prioritize areas for conservation action.


The IUCN is holding its World Conservation Congress in Honolulu during the first half of September.  The several sessions focused on both invasive species and forests have been grouped into “Journeys”.  The invasive species Journey schedule is available here.  The schedule for the forest Journey is available here   I don’t think either puts much emphasis on the year-old Tree Specialist Group.


Over the decades, the Union has increasingly engaged on plant conservation issues. The plants under consideration now include trees! There are multiple ways that you can be part of this important effort. Details are below. One of the efforts’ leaders assures me that the IUCN process will address tree species not yet “endangered” but under severe pressure – currently or virtually certainly in the near future – from established non-native insects and pathogens.


The IUCN has noted that trees have high ecological, economic, and cultural value. Forests are being converted or degraded by many human-related activities, including overharvesting, fire and grazing – to say nothing of climate change and non-native pests. Yet – the impacts of forest conversion and degradation on tree species per se are largely unknown. How many tree species qualify for a “Red List” category: extinct, critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable? (For a discussion of the criteria applied in assigning categories, go here.

(Of course, full-scale extinction or endangerment of a species is the extreme; ecological damage begins earlier and more locally, as the species declines as the result of a suite of pressures …)


The IUCN has formed a Global Tree Specialist Group to conduct a comprehensive conservation assessment of the world’s tree species, linked to IUCN’s Red List. The effort is being led by the Tree Specialist Group  and the Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI). The group’s mission, underlying considerations and process are described in an article published in the Oryx article cited below.


IUCN has recently completed analyses of extinction risk in selected animal groups. They concluded that 14% of bird, 33% of amphibian, and 22% of mammal species are either threatened or extinct.


Preparing the same type of analysis for tree species will be more complicated. First there are many more plant species than ones in the selected groups of animals. Scientists don’t know the total number of extant tree species. One estimate is 60,000.  If that estimate is in the ballpark, the status of approximately 84% of tree species has not yet been assessed. Assessments of tree species begun in the 1990s have resulted in approximately 9,500 species being included in one of the Red List categories.  They represent slightly less than half of all plant species listed.


To achieve the goal of assessing the status of all tree species by 2020, organizers plan to adopt the approach used successfully in the recent assessments of vertebrate groups – mobilizing global data sets (which have become more numerous and easier to use) and hundreds of volunteer experts.


To start, the Group is focused on specific plant families with high numbers of trees, e.g., Aquifoliaceae, Fabaceae, Fagaceae, Lauraceae, Meliaceae and Myrtaceae. Combined, these families include more than 20,000 species. Assessments of Betulaceae and Ebenaceae have already started, led by BGCI and the Missouri Botanical Garden, respectively.


Project leaders hope to complete 5,000 more tree assessments – new or updates – during 2016.


What is Under Way


Other IUCN specialist groups are assisting in assessing the status of trees in various geographic regions or with particular human uses. The IUCN Plants for People initiative is already assessing timber, medicinal and crop wild relatives. The Crop Wild Relative Specialist Group has prepared draft assessments for over 90 woody species of Malus, Prunus, Pistacia and Mangifera. Specialist Groups and Red List authorities in South Africa, Brazil, and East Africa and several island groups are contributing.


A third focus will be tree species presumed to be most at risk from climate change, e.g., montane and island trees. IUCN Specialist Groups in Hawai`i, New Caledonia, Galapagos, Mascarene Islands, Fiji, and Madagascar are working.


The BGCI is making progress on assessing Europe’s non-coniferous trees. If you wish to help, contact Malin Rivers at malin.rivers@bgci.org.


In North America, the U.S. Forest Service hosted a meeting on “Gene Conservation of Tree Species” at the Morton Arboretum in Chicago in May 2016. Murphy Westwood facilitated a special session during which “listing” experts from IUCN, NatureServe, USFS CAPTURE Program, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service compared their assessment processes and discussed how data might be shared more efficiently. A goal of completing the IUCN Red List of North American Trees was agreed on. The Morton Arboretum will help coordinate the effort. To contribute please contact Murphy Westwood at mwestwood@morton.org.  


One suggestion was to conduct an IUCN Red List assessment for the genus Fraxinus. Two ash species – one Asian, one Central American – are included in the IUCN Red List (although one needs to be updated). Jeanne Romero-Severson of Notre Dame University has offered to undertake assessments for green ash, Fraxinus pennsylvanica, and black ash, Fraxinus nigra. If you wish to help, contact Sara Oldfield at sara@saraoldfield.net.


(I think several other species also warrant IUCN assessment, including redbay Persea borbonia, tanoak Notholithocarpus densiflorus, and whitebark pine Pinus albicaulis)


This IUCN effort represents yet a fourth set of people examining tree-pest interactions – people integrated into traditional, internationally-focused conservation organizations. There are at least three other groups already involved: (1) forest pest experts in academia and government agencies, (2) people who focus on invasive species, and (3) phytosanitary officials. I think that these latter three groups already interact less smoothly than would be ideal. How can we all combine our efforts to enhance protection programs?


Might more of the scientists who work on insects and pathogens attacking tree species join the IUCN Tree Specialist group? Might organizers of meetings make a greater effort to engage people from all four silos in discussions of strategies? Might some virtual for a be established that could facilitate communication across the gaps – perhaps emphasizing the gap between invasive species experts and phytosanitary officials?


Finally, how can we use the new focus on tree species’ degree of endangerment to enhance efforts to prevent and respond to invasions by non-native insects and pathogens? How do we link these concerns to existing attention to the ecological and economic impacts – which begin to manifest long before a species qualifies as “endangered”.  How can the various approaches reinforce each other?





Newton, A., S. Oldfield, M. Rivers, J. Mark, G. Schatz, N. Tejedor Garavito, E. Cantarello, D. Golicher, L. Cayuela, and L. Miles. 2015. Towards a Global Tree Assessment. Oryx, Volume 49, Issue 3, July 2015, pp. 410-415.


Explanatory information available at




The GTSG Newsletter is apparently available only to those who are part of the IUCN network.


For more information, contact Sara Oldfield, Co-Chair GTSG, at sara@saraoldfield.net




Posted by Faith Campbell

Biocontrol As a Strategy to Control Damage by Invasive Plants – is the Logjam Broken?


garlic mustard; Chris Evans,River to River CWMA;  Bugwood

As we all know, the United States is overrun by non-native plants.  As I noted in blogs posted in January and March, Rod Randall’s database lists more than 9,700 non-native plant species as naturalized in the U.S.  Not all 9,700 cause environmental damage. But hundreds do – a fact attested to by the various regional Invasive Plant and Exotic Pest Plant councils:

  • The Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council lists approximately 400 invasive species.
  • The Mid-Atlantic Invasive Plant Council lists 285 invasive plants.
  • The Midwest Invasive Plant Network says the state agencies or state-level invasive plant councils in its region list more than 270 plant species as invasive, noxious, or pest species in the Midwest.
  • The California Invasive Plant Council lists 208.
  • Texas Invasives reports that there are more than 800 non-indigenous plant species in the state, of which 20 are considered invasive.


The Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies councils do not provide lists on their websites.


The analysis of forest inventory data by Christopher Oswalt and colleagues — discussed in my blog in March — found that almost 40% of forest plots in the United States are invaded by alien plant species. Other than in Hawai`i, the most invaded region is forests in the eastern United States – where 46% of forest plots in the East harbor one or more of the invasive plant species included in the inventory process.


The March and earlier blogs discuss reasons why the invasive plant situation is likely to worsen over time.


Given the geographic extent of plant invasions and the environmental complications, expense, and other difficulties associated with managing invasive plants using mechanical or chemical tools, many place their hope in biological control. Scientists in the U.S. Forest Service, Agriculture Research Service, U.S Geological Survey, academia, and other institutions have devoted years to identifying promising biocontrol agents targeting some of the most widespread and damaging invasive plants.


Possible biocontrol agents have been identified for numerous invasive plant species  …  but relatively few have been approved for release.


Part of the delay is attributable to the necessity for caution to ensure that biocontrol agents are effective and do not become damaging invasive themselves.  This concern underlies the legal requirement that non-native biocontrol agents must be approved by USDA APHIS. APHIS permits are required for

  • Importation of live biocontrol agents into the U.S. or its territories
  • Interstate movement of live biocontrol agents (USDA policy allows movement of certain commercial entomophagous biocontrol agents without a permit)
  • Retaining live biocontrol agents after expiration of a permit
  • Movement of any live biocontrol agent from confinements of containment facility or for release into the environment.

The approval process is lengthy and complex – and frustrating! Its many steps were outlined in a presentation by a staffer in APHIS’ permit branch, Robert Tichenor, available here


As noted in the presentation, the process can take a decade or more between scientists initiating the search for possible agents to final approval. The scientists hoping to find useful biocontrol agents face possibly years of work to identify and obtain organisms that seem promising as biocontrol agents. The petitioner must then screen the putative agent(s) for efficacy and then for host specificity. Once this work has been completed, the scientist prepares a petition to APHIS asking that it approve release of the biocontrol agent(s).

At this stage, government agencies take over. When it receives a petition for release of a biocontrol agent, APHIS sends the petition to the Technical Advisory Group (TAG).  (For details about the TAG, go here.

Under the TAG charter, APHIS invites the following agencies to provide a representative to serve on the TAG: Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency; Department of Agriculture: APHIS, Agricultural Research Service, Forest Service, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Natural Resource Conservation Service; Department of the Interior: Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Geological Survey. APHIS may also invite participation by State or other Federal government employees (one each) to represent the National Plant Board, Weed Science Society of America, and other Federal Agencies expressing interest.  Canada and Mexico are also asked their views.


The TAG reviews both the proposed plant list for host specificity testing and the petition for first-time field release. The TAG may suggest inclusion of certain test plants, identify conflicts of interest, and assess potential risks associated with an environmental release. In making their evaluations, TAG members are expected to represent their agency’s or organization’s perspective. The chairman seeks to build consensus. Then s/he conveys the recommendations to APHIS.


APHIS decides whether to proceed with the review process and so informs the petitioner and APHIS’ Policy and Program Development (PPD) division.  Using information in the Petition, APHIS prepares a Biological Assessment analyzing whether releasing the biocontrol agent might affect a species listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This Biological Assessment is sent to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)  to initiate an “informal” consultation per Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (16 U.S.C. Section 1536). The FWS’ review can take more than a year and can involve requests for additional information. For the proposed biocontrol project to proceed, APHIS must receive a letter from US FWS stating that US FWS  “concurs” with APHIS’ determination that release of the biocontrol agent is “not likely to adversely affect” listed species or designated Critical Habitat.


Upon receipt of the FWS concurrence letter, APHIS begins preparing an environmental assessment (EA), and consults with any affected Native American tribes. The draft EA is released for public comment, usually for a period of 30 days. Once the comments are received, APHIS reviews and responds to the comments, and issues the final EA and accompanying Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). A month later, the permit is issued to remove the biocontrol agent form containment and release it into the environment.


While APHIS normally waits for FWS approval before beginning the NEPA review – because APHIS cannot complete the FONSI until it receives FWS concurrence – staff are now considering ways to speed up the process.


This already lengthy process has been further hampered by retirement of key staff in both APHIS and the FWS. New staff were also probably more cautious about approving agents because of the controversy over the potential impact of biocontrol agents’ success in reducing populations of tamarisk (Tamarix spp.) on nesting habitat for the endangered southwest willow flycatcher.


Finally, the process itself causes delays. Petitioners are required to re-submit their proposal to the Technical Advisory Group each time it is revised to address a question raised by a reviewer. These requirements can cause delay and probably frustrate the petitioners.

Current status of weed biocontrol programs

air potato

air potato; Rebekah D. Wallace, University of Georgia; bugwood.org

The current status of weed biocontrol is partially revealed at this site, which shows the status of TAG and APHIS actions.  Some 36 biocontrol agents proposed for field release have been reviewed by the TAG since 2010.  Of these, two have completed the review process and been approved by APHIS for release: agents targeting hawkweeds (Hieracium spp.) and air potato (Dioscorea bulbifera). Both were approved in 2011. In his presentation, Dr. Tichenor said a third insect – a gall fly targeting Cape Ivy (Delairea odorata) – received a permit allowing release into the environment in May 2016.

The 33 other biocontrol agents that were approved by the TAG are still in other stages of the approval process. Dr. Tichenor reported that an environmental assessment is now being written for a leaf mining fly (Lasioptera donacis) intended to control Arundo (this agent was approved by the TAG only in April 2016 – remarkable speed in obtaining FWS clearance). Three agents are nearing the end of the Endangered Species Act §7 consultation process; these are agents targeting yellow toadflax (Linaria vulgaris), hoary cress (Lepidium draba), and the two swallow-worts (Cynanchum louiseae or Vincetoxicum nigrum; and Cynanchum rossicum or Vincetoxicum rossicum). APHIS has asked for additional information on two agents – targeting gorse and several knotweed species.

One agent intended for use against garlic mustard was rejected by the TAG in 2009.  A second agent is still under review by the TAG.

The other four species approved by the TAG in 2016 to date are presumably at the early stage of the biological assessment; these include two agents for Brazilian pepper, a beetle for Chinese tallowtree, and another insect targeting hawkweeds (genus now given as Pilosella).


Since 2010, the TAG has recommended against field release for eight proposed biocontrol agents.  These included species intended to control Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense), Russian thistle (Salsola tragus), and Russian knapweed (Rhaponticum repens).  The TAG asked for additional information on four species.


Of course, garlic mustard and Chinese privet are among the top five most frequently detected invaders in the forest inventory study – garlic mustard in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, privet in the Southeast.

A fungus (Verticillium nonalfalfae ) is under study as a biocontrol agent for another widespread invasive plant, Ailanthus (tree of heaven). Research by USDA Forest Service scientists have found that a few native species of shrubs and trees are also mildly sensitive to the fungus.  Testing of additional native and agricultural species continues. The fungus occurs naturally in North America so it is not subject to the approval process described here.


An introduced insect, spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) also attacks Ailanthus. The lanternfly attacks a wide range of woody plants, including grapes and fruit trees. Consequently, Pennsylvania is attempting to eradicate it from the four counties in the eastern part of the state where it has been found.


Hundreds of invasive plant species are damaging ecosystems across the country. Biocontrol is one of the few tools available to counter the threat from invasive species – plants and others. I hope people concerned about invasive species will increase efforts to identify those bioinvaders for which biocontrol appears to offer promise, then to seek out potential biocontrol agents. And that regulatory bodies improve their ability to evaluate proposals promptly – while still being thorough. Doing nothing causes real harm.


Posed by Faith Campbell

What Happens When Decision-Makers (= politicians) Don’t Hear from Us

Decisions and delays that undermine vital phytosanitary programs …


champion green ashchampion dead

Michigan’s champion green ash – before and after emerald ash borer entered the state


Sometimes, when a shipment arriving at a U.S. port is found to be enclosed in wood packaging that is infested by pests, the importers complain to top-level officials. Sometimes, those officials respond to the pressure by allowing that shipment to enter the country – contrary to policy and common sense.

I learned recently of a particularly upsetting situation. A shipment of car parts arrived at a seaport. The wood packaging was found to be infested by a wood-boring insect that attacks pines and possibly other conifers. Because adults were present, the shipment could not be fumigated – because adult insects can escape during that process.

According to U.S. regulations, the shipment should have been refused entry to the U.S. and placed back on the ship to be transported elsewhere.

But what happened instead? The importer – a major auto manufacturer – complained to Michigan political leaders that delay in receiving the “just in time” shipment would result in halting production and unemployment.

Michigan governor Snyder and both Senator Debbie Stabenow and Senator Gary Peters put pressure on the U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture (who supervises APHIS) and Homeland Security (who supervises the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection). The two secretaries agreed to allow movement of the pest-infested shipment from the seaport across half the country to Michigan. They overruled their staffs and endangered our forests – most immediately along the shipment route. Those forests provide wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, water supplies and other ecosystem serves; as well as numerous jobs and industries. It will be years before we know whether pests escaped the containers during transport and established in any of the wildland, rural, or urban forests along the route.

Had the shipment been refused entry — as the law requires — a new shipment in pest-free crates would have arrived within weeks.

It is particularly ironic that this pressure was exerted by Michigan officials. You would think that Michigan officials would remember the devastation to their state caused by the emerald ash borer and —  instead — press for vigorous enforcement of effective phytosanitary rules.

Of course, the Federal officials responsible for protecting our Nation from damaging plant pests should be strong in the face of political pressure. They should enforce regulations adopted through the appropriate regulatory processes. However, in this case, they chose the politically expedient action instead of carrying out their legal responsibilities.

A second example:

Since 2010, APHIS and its Canadian counterpart, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, have tried to amend the two countries’ regulations to require that wood packaging used to support or contain goods traded between the two countries conform to the international standard (ISPM#15). (When they initially adopted ISPM#15 in 2004, the U.S. and Canada exempted their bilateral trade.)

Why end this exemption? Both countries realize that each country harbors pests – native or introduced – that could pose a threat to forests in the other country. Also, the exemption complicates enforcement of the standard for shipments that originated elsewhere, e.g., in Europe or Asia.

For example, shipments of Italian decorative tiles that had been held in Canadian warehouses have been sent later to retailers in the U.S. Shippers have claimed that the pallets supporting the tiles are of Canadian origin, so they don’t need to have the stamp certifying treatment. Customs officials say that sometimes the evidence counters this claim – leading them to conclude that the pallet actually accompanied the load of tiles throughout its movement from Italy and thus is in violation of both U.S. and Canadian rules.  I expect that Canadians could cite examples of the same problem arising with shipments from U.S. warehouses to Canadian retailers.

Still, despite the need to end the exemption, APHIS’ proposed rule has been stuck at higher levels in the Department of Agriculture due to opposition by the Chamber of Commerce and some business associations.

Why are top-level politicians and other officials undermining phytosanitary programs? Do they not know the costs they’re risking?

I think it is at least partly because those of who know about the pest risk associated with wood packaging lack powerful and vocal allies who can educate the policy-makers about the damaged caused by introduced tree-killing pests.

For a reminder – woodborers have been estimated by Aukema et al. 2011 to cost local governments $1.7 billion per year; homeowners pay another $760 million to remove dead trees from their property. For more information, see also my blogs posted in July, August, September, and October 2016; fact sheets posted here and articles by Aukema et al. 2011 and Lovett et al. 2016. Remember that the costs discussed in these papers don’t reflect the vast majority of environmental and ecosystem losses, including disruption of such unique ecosystems as black ash swamps from New Brunswick to Minnesota and tree hammocks in the Everglades. Nor do they include the losses of cultural resources to Native Americans, such as basket weavers of the North and medicinal plants for Tribes in Florida …

You would think that federal and state officials who have lived through the disasters resulting from introduced wood-borers would want strict enforcement of customs and plant health regulations intended to prevent introduction of additional tree-killing pests. But these people respond to what they hear from the public and the media – perhaps the loudest voice they heard most recently. Unfortunately, people who care about invasive species – specifically tree-killing insects and pathogens – don’t have spokespeople.

Do you think the President or even Secretary of Agriculture is hearing about tree-killing pests every week? From whom? Not the Chief of the USDA Forest Service. Not the forest products industry. Not leaders of conservation organizations. Do governors, mayors, or heads of state agriculture or conservation agencies speak to Senators or Members of Congress — routinely and repeatedly — about the need to better protect our forests from non-native pests?

The evidence is that they do not. And what is the result?  These decision-makers respond to pressure from importers who want access to traded goods – and who are quite vocal about their complaints. Politics is how our country makes important decisions. And in politics, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

When was the last time any of these officials – USDA Secretary Vilsack, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, Governor Rick Snyder, Senators Stabenow and Peters – heard from constituents or from leaders of the agencies under their jurisdiction about the importance of preventing introduction of new wood-boring insects?  When did a Michigan news media outlet last publish a report that discussed the pathways or vectors by which these insects enter the country and the importance of enforcing rules adopted to prevent additional introductions?

I recognize that it can be difficult for staff to get the attention of their supervisors on such issues. For example, I have been told by several people that California Governor Jerry Brown was surprised to learn that sudden oak death had killed millions of trees in his state. How did he “learn” this? From an article in the Washington Post that reported on a recent scientific study (Cuniffe et al. 2016).  Staff of CalFire were very frustrated that their efforts to educate the Governor had not resulted in his understanding the pathogen’s impact.

So – what can we do to re-balance the politics of phytosanitary policy – so that our political leaders understand why phytosanitary rules are adopted and support both adoption and enforcement of strong, effective measures?

We need to

  • Speak up at every opportunity about the damage to our trees caused by non-native insects and pathogens and describe the policies and programs that can reduce that damage and the risk of additional introductions.
    1. Tell this story to elected officials at all levels
    2. Write letters to the editors of media outlets
    3. Offer to show officials and reporters examples of the damage
  • Educate members of other stakeholder groups and ask them to integrate this message into their interactions with officials and the media.


  • Election seasons provide opportunities to raise issues.
  • People taking up positions in January (whether elected or appointed) will be more open to learning about “new” issues than have been people who have occupied an office for some time.

Finally – these messages need to be repeated periodically. Proctor and Gamble does not make its profits  by asking us to buy their toothpaste once a year. We cannot duplicate a major corporation’s advertising budget – but we can speak up!



Aukema, J.E., B. Leung, K. Kovacs, C. Chivers, K. O. Britton, J. Englin, S.J. Frankel, R. G. Haight, T. P. Holmes, A. Liebhold, D.G. McCullough, B. Von Holle.. 2011. Economic Impacts of Non-Native Forest Insects in the Continental United States PLoS One September 2011 (Volume 6 Issue 9)

Cunniffe, N.J., R.C. Cobb, R.K. Meentemeyer, D.M. Rizzo, and C.A. Gilligan. Modeling when, where, and how to manage a forest epidemic, motivated by SOD in California. PNAS, May 2016 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1602153113

Lovett,G.M.,  M. Weiss, A.M. Liebhold, T.P. Holmes, B. Leung, K.F. Lambert, D.A. Orwig, F.T. Campbell, J. Rosenthal, D.G. McCullough, R. Wildova, M.P. Ayres, C.D. Canham, D.R. Foster, S.L. LaDeau, and T. Weldy. 2016. Nonnative forest insects and pathogens in the United States: Impacts and policy options. Ecological Applications, 0(0), 2016, pp. 1–19. DOI 10.1890/15-1176.1


Posted by Faith Campbell