"We have to put our foot down": Florida wildlife managers ban invasive reptiles
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Thursday signed off on banning the sale, ownership and breeding of tegus, iguanas and other invasive reptiles that have overrun native wildlife populations.
Many of the new rules—approved in a unanimous vote over pushback from reptile breeders and sellers—will be phased in over coming months to give businesses time to comply. The toughest measure—a total ban on commercial breeding in Florida of tegus and iguanas—won't go into effect until June 2024. Pet owners will have 180 days to comply with new regulations mandating concrete enclosures for reptiles kept outdoors.
The rules represent the strictest crackdown from Florida wildlife managers yet on an exotic pet trade that scientists blame for the state's worsening problem with invasive reptiles. The infamous Burmese python, which has largely wiped out small mammal population in the Everglades, is only one of many invasive species that pose a high risk of spreading across subtropical South Florida. Its sale and import in the state was blocked in 2010.
"We have to put our foot down. People want to move to Florida because of nature, because of our environment. The time has come to take a bold stand against these real threats to our environment," said Rodney Barreto, FWC's newly elected chairman.
In a board meeting Thursday, wildlife managers placed on FWC's prohibited list of species all species of tegu lizards and the green iguana, as well as green anacondas, Nile monitor lizards and six species of pythons.
FWC is targeting the exotic pet trade because most invasive fish and wildlife in Florida were established through the escape or intentional release of captive animals. They say there is evidence the 16 targeted species in the new legislation already have local populations or may become established and negatively impact Florida's ecology, economy or human health and safety.
The new rules group species like tegus and green iguanas into the same category as pythons and Nile monitor lizards, which cannot be sold as pets. The rules also ban importation of these species.
FWC said the exotic species pose a significant threat to Florida's fragile ecosystems like the Everglades, and that current regulations are no longer effective in managing their expansion and damage. With more than $10 million spent annually on invasive species, joint efforts by FWC and other state and federal agencies are nowhere near controlling some of the more widespread invaders.
"The global movement of products and people, the increased demand in the global market for exotic animals and the ease to acquire them has increased the potential for nonnative fish and wildlife to escape or be released and ultimately cause impacts. Invasive fish and wildlife are considered the second most significant threat to biodiversity, after habitat loss," FWC said in a presentation during the meeting.
Reptile breeders and pet owners said the new regulation is unfair, not based on science and ineffective to address the problem cause by invasive reptiles that are already established.
"The proposed rules are far from reasonable and they won't help resolve the problem the state has with invasive species," said Phil Goss, president of the national U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers. He said the new regulation targets breeders and enthusiasts who are responsible reptile owners.
FWC said Florida has the most invasive reptile species in the U.S. because of its welcoming subtropical climate and plentiful food availability, multiple ports of entry and vibrant trade in exotic animals. Commercial breeding for sale and pet ownership play a significant role in raising the odds that an invasive species will become established because it increases the number of animals that can potentially escape or be intentionally released, FWC said.
Ecological impacts can include feeding on native species, as the case of Burmese pythons eating small mammals like marsh rabbits, raccoons and even small deer, as well as competition with native animals for food. Habitat alteration, which iguanas have been documented to cause in Florida, can also affect native species.
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