BILL MAXWELL: Florida's slithering invaders
We Floridians love international visitors. Showing them a good time is a major way that we sustain our economy. But there are some visitors we can do without. In fact, we want them out of here. They are a menace, and they have overstayed their welcome in paradise.
I’m referring to invasive animals, those exotic and dangerous species. People around the globe still remember the photo several years ago of the 13-foot Burmese python and the 6-foot alligator that fought to their deaths in the Everglades. A few weeks ago, another photo showed a Florida International University student with an 18-foot, 8-inch python he caught and killed in the Everglades. This was the biggest python killed thus far in South Florida, reminding us that we have been invaded.
Scientists estimate that there are thousands of pythons in the Everglades, some longer than 18 feet. We probably will never get rid of them because they live in inaccessible areas and reproduce annually, the females sitting on up to 100 eggs until they hatch.
The reptiles are a danger, not only to public safety but to natural resources. Full-grown Burmese pythons, 200 pounds of muscle, can overpower their owners and are a threat to residents if they wind up on the loose. Several have been captured or killed in South Florida neighborhoods.
But they also threaten biodiversity because they eat native species, including endangered ones. “It’s only a matter of time until we find a Florida panther in a snake belly,” said Jenny Conner Nelms, Florida director of government relations for the Nature Conservancy. “Pythons also have the potential to make some common species ‘rare’ in the future. Baby birds, adult wading birds, bobcats, kitty cats — pythons eat them all.”
Until recently, Florida lawmakers seemed to have put the livelihoods of animal dealers ahead of the greater good of the state. Rules and oversight were lax.
On top of that, many snake owners simply released their pets in the Everglades once they became too large to manage.
To their credit, state lawmakers began working with the pet industry, scientists and environmental organizations and crafted legislation that brought some sanity to reptile trade and management policies. The state identified nine reptiles that no longer can be sold for personal possession, and there are stricter rules for caging and transporting reptiles to reduce chances of escape. The new law also gives the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission the authority to control sales into the state, including mail-order and Internet transactions. The commission also has the authority to fine lawbreakers.
Nelms said these regulations are a good beginning, but we still need what she refers to as a “pre-import screening tool” at the state and federal levels. In other words, wildlife officials need the authority to screen and keep out dangerous species such as the python.
Currently, the 111-year-old Lacey Act is the federal law for invasive species. Nelms wrote recently in the Palm Beach Post that most experts consider the Lacey Act to be ineffective in addition to being costly.
“The United States receives hundreds of millions of live wild animals each year,” she wrote. “At least 2,500 species of non-native wildlife were imported in the past decade.”
Research indicates that more than 300 of those species are known to be potential invaders or present disease risk. However, the Lacey Act process to review typically occurs after the harmful species has been brought into the country.
“The Burmese-python invasion is a prime example of how federal reforms to screen species for risk before importation could have saved the nation’s natural resources, and hundreds of millions of dollars in control costs,” Nelms wrote.
There is a potential solution in the offering. A bill in Washington, HR 996, the Invasive Fish and Wildlife Prevention Act, would give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service more authority to screen exotics such as the python. That makes sense not only because prevention is the most effective tool, but also the least expensive one. But so far, the plan is failing to win enough Republican support in the House.
House members who remain unconvinced should reread last month’s tale of FIU student Jason Leon killing the record-sized Burmese python and ask themselves why they won’t take action.