Bureaucrats and Beetles: Why Quarantines Couldn't Save the Elm

Authors: Emily Bukowski*, Syracuse University
Topics: Environment, Historical Geography, Biogeography
Keywords: quarantine, invasive species, environmental history, Dutch elm disease
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Jackson, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Before Elton coined the term ‘invasive species’ in 1958, forest managers were already ‘raging war’ against foreign pests and diseases that moved around the globe due to human interference. Dutch elm disease, a fungus introduced to the United States in 1930, was one such species that led to a public ‘call to arms’ to protect native trees. Although the disease was not a unique invader in its ability to cause catastrophic ecosystem damage, it stands apart due to our knowledge of its potential impact prior to its arrival. Unlike other invasive species that are relatively innocuous in their home ecosystems and do not pose an obvious threat until they have become an established pest, Dutch elm disease had already wreaked havoc in Europe a decade before its arrival in the US. American regulators were eager to keep the fungus and its vectors out of the country, and rigorous quarantines were established to protect the iconic American elm tree. Using data from the archives of the Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine, the group tasked with preventing its import, this paper tracks the introduction of Dutch elm disease to the United States in an effort to understand how and why the fungus was introduced despite those quarantines, and to develop the story of how we understood and managed invasive species prior to the development of the term.

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