Florida bans 16 invasive reptile species

The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has tried for years to deal with the influx. Among other strategies, he required owners to shoot iguanas on sight and invited amateur hunters to compete for prizes at a roundup of pythons. Then late last month, the commissioners took more extreme action, deciding 7-0 to ban the possession and breeding of these reptiles and 14 other non-native species.

“We have to put our foot down,” said Chairman Rodney Barreto, a Miami developer recently criticized for his role in a dredging and landfill project in Palm Beach. “Now is the time to take a bold stand against these real threats to our environment.”

The vote came after a four-hour online public hearing. More than 80 people had called, from as far away as Oregon and Maine, many to oppose it. Reptile breeders and dealers argued the move would undermine their industry, while herpetology enthusiasts lamented the loss of pets they consider part of their family.

One caller even cried, explaining that she relied on her pythons and iguanas to help her through lonely nights and tough days.

“If you take them off,” she said, “I’d be really messed up.”

As passed, the ban will be staggered over three years to give companies time to get rid of their breeding stock. It does not require a roundup of pets. Their owners can keep them as long as the animals live, but not replace them.

The action of the wildlife commission drew praise from the supervisor of Everglades National Park, environmental activists, animal welfare groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and others. All say saving Florida’s native species, including endangered tortoises and waders, is essential. Most of the more than 5,000 comments collected in the months leading up to the vote expressed the same sentiment.

“We’re very supportive of that,” said Mike Elfenbein of the Everglades Coordinating Council, an umbrella group of hunting and fishing organizations. “I cannot begin to express the devastation this region has experienced.”

Yet in a state where an island community voluntarily forces itself to employ an iguana trapper – who has written a cookbook on iguanas – non-native species biologists say drastic measures are long overdue. .

“Not only did they close the door after the horses left,” said Don Schmitz, the former executive director of the North American Invasive Species Network, “but the barn has collapsed and been completely destroyed now and the horses are all dead.”

The American Reptile Keepers Association condemned Florida’s ban as a betrayal of its attempt to find a compromise that would allow the continued ownership and breeding of six types of pythons, as well as green anacondas, green iguanas, Nile monitor lizards and all kinds of tegu.

“People have literally spent millions and even moved to Florida from out of state, built cages and started businesses, and now they have to get rid of everything,” said chapter founding member Brian Love. group status.

Lawmakers tried to impose a similar ban last year on a small group of reptiles, passing a bill that Governor Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law. USARK of Florida sued and a judge struck down the law, ruling that only the wildlife commission has the authority to impose such a ban. The same group seems likely to sue again.

“There are patterns of damage,” said Love, owner of Love’s Reptiles in Palm City on the southeast coast. He runs the thriving business from his home and specializes in albino lizards and snakes. He said he rents out his scaly menagerie — some of his lizards reach 10 feet in length — to zoos and aquariums across the country. Stopping him from doing that, he noted, won’t help round up all those pythons, iguanas and monitor lizards already roaming the wild.

Like others, Love blames DeSantis. The governor oversees the wildlife commission and has made the removal of Everglades pythons one of his flagship environmental policies.

In a 2019 press conference featuring two people holding a live python, DeSantis linked the importance of eradication to the millions of tax dollars spent redeveloping the “river of grass,as it has long been called. What good, he asked, if these snakes wipe out all the native fauna?

“We are investing a lot of money in restoring the Everglades,” he said. “We want to make sure the ecosystem is strong.”

DeSantis has since doubled the number of state-sanctioned hunters looking for the big snakes and expanded the area where they are allowed to stalk their quarries. But the work is tedious and time-consuming, and their captures have barely made a dent in a population estimated in the hundreds of thousands. With no real progress, imposing a ban at least gives it the appearance of a victory, according to its reptile industry critics.

“I love DeSantis. The problem is he’s trying to be an environmentalist,” said Eugene Bessette, who started his Central Florida python business, Ophiological Services, in 1980. things get cleaned up and done.

Rare is the Republican politician accused of being anti-business – especially such a lucrative business as Florida’s reptile industry. Wildlife commission staff calculated the industry to be worth between $50 million and $200 million, although Ariel Collis, an economist hired by USARK, deemed the figure too low because it omits ancillary businesses such as companies supplying rats for reptiles to eat and veterinarians caring for snakes and lizards.

The Port of Miami handles more herpetological imports, by dollar value, than any other US port, Collis reported. About 500,000 reptiles, with a reported value of $6.4 million, arrived there in 2018, he said.

People who raise and sell these creatures find Florida appealing for its year-round tropical climate, which mimics that of the countries their produce comes from. And for the past decade, they could do so under a state licensing program called the Controlled Species List. The rules called for secure caging, full documentation, and implantation of identification tags under the skin. USARK has some 266 licensed reptile custodians, and in comments submitted to the wildlife commission, the organization said there have been no escapes from licensed facilities and only six citations. had been issued for violation. (Iguanas and tegus are not part of the program.)

Those who oppose prohibition claim that it will backfire, like a reptilian version of prohibition. Some predict this will create an unregulated black market leading to escapes and releases that will exacerbate the invasive species problem rather than solve it.

“If people want something, they’re going to find a way to get it,” Bessette said.

Others say it will discourage the industry’s own efforts to control the most notorious intruders.

Reptile expert Joe Wasilewski, who began answering calls from Everglades rangers about pythons in the 1980s, knows of South Florida dealers who pay a bounty to residents who bring them local iguanas. They in turn sell those iguanas to collectors in other states, he says, eliminating tens of thousands of people from Florida each year.

“If they have to stop doing this,” Wasilewski warned, “then whooo! You haven’t seen a thing!

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