Sunday, January 10, 2010

Everglades: River of Grass

I spent a week of the holidays in South Florida and went on an airboat tour of the Everglades. Highlights were the many alligators we saw sunning themselves and an abundance of birds including great blue herons, anhingas, cattle egrets.

I asked our guide about the issue of the invasive species, particularly Burmese pythons and African rock pythons. He said that he hadn't seen any in this part of the Everglades however his concern were the snakehead fish (which we saw) and the many iguanas in the area. There are even Nile Monitors (yes, those meat eating aggressive giant lizards from Africa) now that are causing problems in Florida! See "Nile monitor lizards invaded Florida and they're winning the battle."

Nile Monitors, Burmese Pythons, African Rock Pythons and the plethora of iguanas running around DO NOT belong in Florida! They are causing havoc to the ecosystem.

This problem of invasive species in Florida has rightly received a lot of press this year and I believe it should be outlawed to have these non-endemic species brought into the country altogether. The New Yorker had a startling article in their April 20, 2009 issue titled "Swamp Things: Florida's Uninvited Predators," written by Burkhard Bilger. From the article:
Florida now has more exotic lizard species than there are natives in the entire Southeast. On a single tree you could conceivably find plants and animals from six continents, including parrots from South America, mynah birds and Old World climbing ferns from Asia, vervet monkeys from Africa, ladybird bettles from Australia, and feral cats from Europe, via Africa and Asia.

The state should do like Hawaii did and ban all non-native species from being brought in. Thankfully, some legislators are starting to take the issue seriously. Hopefully it is not too late. From a December 2009 post on the blog of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida:

Legislation has been introduced in Washington, D.C. that would halt the import and commercial trade in pythons. Senate Bill 373, sponsored by Florida Senator Bill Nelson and House Resolution 2811, sponsored by U.S. Representative Kendrick Meek (17th District of Florida), would add pythons to the federal list of "Injurious Wildlife," making it illegal to import pythons or ship or sell the snakes across state lines (the list of injurious species currently includes animals such as the fruit bat, mongoose and Zebra mussel).

Burmese pythons, native to Southeast Asia, are fast-growing snakes that reach average lengths of 14 to 18 feet and can weigh more than 200 pounds. In recent months, pythons have been captured in residential neighborhoods across Florida, and hundreds of the snakes have been removed from the Everglades and surrounding areas. It is clear that exotic snakes are a threat to Florida's ecosystem. It is also clear that the pet trade is at the root of the problem. It remains easy to purchase exotic reptiles in Florida. Many of these animals end up doomed to live in deplorable conditions, or are abandoned after they become too expensive to care for.

See the website for the Everglades Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area for more on the efforts to manage the invasive species problem.

With restoration of the Everglades taking place with important initiatives such as the building of a bridge on the Tamiami Trail and the purchase of Everglades lands from U.S. Sugar, let's hope that the invasive species issue does not sabotage the efforts to restore this amazing ecosytem.
I'm currently reading Michael Greenwald's amazing book on the Everglades titled The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise and I highly recommend it for its history on the region, the heavy price wagered for overdevelopment and sprawl, engineering debacles and misuse of wetlands for agriculture. In it, Greenwald offers this sobering thought:
Before the war in Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell invoked the "Pottery Barn rule" for invading sovereign nations: You break it, you own it. The same rule should apply to ecosystems. We broke the Everglades, so we ought to fix it. "The Everglades is a test," the environmentalists say. "If we pass, we may get to keep the planet." It is a test of our scientific knowledge, our engineering prowess, and our political will. It is a test of the concept of sustainable development. But most of all, the Everglades is a moral test. It will be a test of our willingness to restrain ourselves, to share the earth's resources with the other living things that moveth upon it, to live in harmony with nature. If we pass, we may deserve to keep the planet. ~ Michael Greenwald

See The Everglades Foundation website for a great video on the River of Grass and for much more information on Everglades restoration.

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