Tropical invaders become growing problem in Florida

Water managers dispatched two experts to Washington, D.C., recently to back a controversial congressional bill targeting an Everglades problem that seems to get bigger every year.

The latest, largest evidence emerged last week: A Burmese python stretching 16 1/2 feet, the longest yet of hundreds, perhaps thousands of the exotic constrictors the South Florida Water Management District has pulled off its lands and levees in the past few years.

More sobering: The female, found on the L-67 levee south of Tamiami Trail, was pregnant, carrying a clutch of 59 eggs — more proof the giant snakes are breeding in the wild.

“These are not little snakes running around. These are massive, dangerous animals,” said district spokesman Randy Smith.

The surge of invasive serpents is the prime reason the district, which oversees 2.2 million acres of state-owned marshlands, has thrown its support behind a House bill that could end the import and breeding not just of pythons, but a whole host of tropical invaders that has settled in South Florida.

But at its first hearing in April, the bill ran into what a cosponsor quipped was a “hornet’s nest of opposition” from pet owners, breeders, hobbyists and pet stores. They expressed outrage to lawmakers in telephone calls, e-mails and YouTube videos — including one titled Pets in Peril, Politicians Gone Wild — arguing that the legislation would bar the ownership of anything more exotic than a Doberman or a Siamese cat.

“One-third of our nation has nonnative species as pets, and apart from dogs, cats and goldfish, which are exempt (in the bill), virtually every species in those homes falls under” the legislation, said Marshall Meyers, chief executive officer of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. The board of directors of the trade group — which comprises pet retailers, wholesalers and hobbyists — spans the spectrum from executives with retail giants Petsmart and PETCO to the owner of the Gourmet Rodent in Jonesville.

The bill, warned Meyers in a “pet alert” summoning pet owners to action, “could shut down major segments of the pet industry virtually overnight.”

Proponents, including a coalition of 15 major environmental organizations such as the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation, call the fears unjustified.

The say the bill targets only species that pose a threat. Still, some suggest the language in the bill is vague.

“There were some legitimate concerns, no one doubts that,” said Peter Jenkins, director of international conservation at Defenders of Wildlife. He notes that pet owners were alarmed when some animals — ferrets, gerbils, guinea pigs and others — weren’t named as species that would be exempt from the bill.

“It needs to be clear that many of these are entirely exempt,” Jenkins said. “We’re only talking about 10 to 15 species that have been identified, that are risky, that are likely invaders.”

The bill aims to stop destructive species, he said, like the raccoon-size Gambian pouched rat, which Florida banned in 2007, and the Burmese python that has been called the poster child for the legislation.

“We’re spending billions of dollars at the state and federal level to restore the Everglades, and unfortunately both plant and animal exotics get into the ecosystem and really knock things out of balance,” said U.S. Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, one of four South Florida legislators who have co-sponsored the bill. “To me it’s common sense, looking at science and what is good for the Everglades.”

Biologists argue that more than 400 of the 1,300 species on the endangered species list are at risk primarily because they compete with — or are targets of — invasive species.

As one of the largest snakes in the world, sometimes topping 20 feet, pythons potentially could challenge the natural dominant predators of the Everglades or other wild places — a concern illustrated in 2005 by the now-famous photos of a 13-foot python that exploded after swallowing a six-foot alligator. Scientists have since pulled out everything from deer hooves to endangered rats from their bellies.

Smith said the impact is obvious along the L-67 levee.

“You won’t find a rabbit down there anymore,” Smith said. “That’s the most noticeable effect. It (the snake) doesn’t seem to have any predators, and it preys on native wildlife.”

Federal and state wildlife managers join the district in supporting the general intent of the bill, but say they need to analyze the specifics.

Scott Hardin, exotic species coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said the agency is preparing a position paper.

“The concept behind the bill is one that we support,” he said. “There aren’t enough resources dedicated to screening which animals might be problematic.”

His remarks were echoed at the hearing by Gary Frazer, assistant director for fisheries and habitat conservation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who said the agency supports the intent of the bill, but that it would require more staffing and more money for risk assessment and enforcement.

Jenkins noted that even opponents like Meyers suggested invasive species need to be curtailed. But Meyers said the bill’s approach is off the mark.

“We recognize it’s a problem and we’re not debating the issue of invasive species,” Meyers said. “Our debate is how to do it in a legitimate way without penalizing owners.”

Meyers suggested lawmakers would be better off tightening the 100-year-old Lacey Act, a wildlife law that regulates the transport of invasive animals. Species with an appetite for destruction are banned after they land on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s “injurious” list.

But the current bill’s sponsor, Delegate Madeleine Bordallo, of Guam, where almost a dozen species of native birds have been wiped out by nonnative snakes, said at the April hearing that such a designation is made only after the species has been found to have caused “serious and widespread harm to the environment, the economy or public health.”

Such a declaration can take four years or longer, she said, giving the targeted species ample time to establish a niche. The South Florida Water Management District filed a petition to list the Burmese python as “injurious” in June 2006, and it is not yet on the list.

Jim Kavney, president of the Florida Keys Herpetological Society, said he fears a crackdown will affect enthusiasts like himself who enjoy amphibians and reptiles the same way other pet owners prize their poodles or tabby cats. He said he believes some of the animal rights and environmental groups involved in the legislation would like to keep all animals wild.

“Most people would wonder how can you love a lizard or a snake or frog, but it happens, people get emotionally attached,” said Kavney. “To take that away would be as if they wanted your dogs or your cat. It’s the same love and affection.”

Bordallo called much of the opposition “a result of misunderstanding,” but promised repeatedly at the hearing that she would improve the bill, calling it a “starting point.”

“To be clear,” she said, “this bill is not intended to affect ownership of people’s pets, nor the importation of domesticated or common species.”

Jenkins said supporters hope to introduce an improved bill in the Senate this fall; Meyers said he hopes the Fish and Wildlife Service will hold hearings to seek public input.

“There’s disagreement over how we get there,” Jenkins said, “But I believe there is agreement to proceed.”