Invasive plant species: social leverage points

Our study emphasizes that social complexity is an essential component of invasion landscape that, when well-understood, provide opportunities to improve the control efficiency of invasive species.

Biological invasions have rapidly increased worldwide. To protect biodiversity and provision of ecosystem services, more effective invasive alien species (IAS) control action is urgently needed.

Biological invasions are commonly considered ecological problems and environmental managers typically seek ecological solutions to the problem. However, long-term solutions to controlling IAS require changes in human behaviour. Therefore, leveraging the attitudes, economic constraints and social influences that underlie land owners’ motivation to participate in IAS control could significantly improve the efficiency of IAS control efforts. Yet, in comparison to our understanding of ecological processes, very little is known about the effect of such micro-level social factors on IAS control efficiency over larger spatial scales.

Here, we argue that it is crucial to move from considering ecological or social dimensions of IAS control to investigating invaded landscapes as dynamic social-ecological systems. In this study, we test the hypothesis that micro-level social factors (attitudes, economic constraints, social interactions etc.) collectively provide levers for improving the efficiency of IAS control.

Using a social-ecological agent-based model that couples the adaptive behaviours of over 200 land owners with spatial dynamics of an on-going IAS invasion, we found that micro-scale social factors can determine the efficiency of invasion control to the extent that higher level management strategies, such as early detection of the invasion, become irrelevant. 

Furthermore, the results demonstrate that contribution of individual social or ecological factors to IAS control efficiency depends on the overall management strategy, i.e. how management factors interact with each other and invasion dynamics. For example, combining establishment of shared rules for control participation that target socially conditioned behaviour with coordination of control action based on the aggressiveness of the invasion can amplify the efficiency of control at landscape level.

Our study accounts for social-ecological dynamics of invasion landscapes that ecological or social studies alone cannot detect. Intriguingly, the results indicate that interacting social and ecological processes of invasion landscapes can create social-ecological feedbacks that, with time, can stabilize the invasion landscape into a regime of accelerating invasion. 

The social complexity of invasion landscapes is often presented as a barrier to IAS control. Our study emphasizes that social complexity is an essential component of invasion landscape that, when well-understood, provide opportunities to improve IAS control efficiency. We conclude that social-ecological models must be used in invasion science to better understand how invasion landscapes emerge from ecological and social processes and their interactions. Lack of consideration to either ecological or social processes in the invasion landscapes can lead to suboptimal control programs and irreversible environmental change.

Yletyinen, J,  Perry, GLW,  Burge, OR,  Mason, NWH,  Stahlmann-Brown, P.  Invasion landscapes as social-ecological systems: Role of social factors in invasive plant species control. People Nat.  2021; 00: 1– 16. 

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