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INVASIVE ANIMALS CONTINUE TO THRIVE IN FLORIDA
As yet another invasive animal becomes established, environmental groups call on the federal government to screen the trade of imported animals and prevent the next problem invasion
WASHINGTON (February 14, 2011)—A large, non-native lizard called the black and white tegu has become established in Florida. Like the Burmese python, one of the state’s most well-known invasive animals, the lizard is pushing out many of Florida’s native animals, including some threatened and endangered species. Florida has documented more than 500 non-native fish and wildlife species in the state, with many becoming established and causing significant environmental and economic damage.
The lizards, native to Argentina, are sold in the United States as exotic pets and most likely were released into the wild by their owners. Since they have no natural predators, they are thriving at the expense of native species. Reaching a length of four to five feet, tegus are opportunistic predators, and eat the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds and turtles, including those of the endangered gopher tortoises. According to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), these lizards also could potentially become an agricultural pest or a source of bacterial contamination of food crops.
The tegu is among a growing number of non-native animal species of Florida. According to the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species (NECIS), updating federal legislation, the Lacey Act, which governs animal imports into the United States, will prevent the future introduction of potentially harmful non-native wildlife species and the diseases they carry.
“In this globalized world, animals are traded across continents every day, and the rules governing the live animal trade in this country need to be brought into the 21st Century,” said Dr. Phyllis Windle, NECIS spokesperson. “Adding a pre-import screening process will prevent the arrival of animals that can potentially harm the ecosystem and economy, endanger native species, or compromise the health of people and animals in this country.”
The Lacey Act, the existing federal law governing animal imports, gives the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) limited power to declare species injurious and to prohibit their import to the United States. During the 111 years since the Lacey Act was adopted, only about 40 animal groups have been prohibited under this legislation, and usually long after the animals have been imported, escaped into the wild, and are causing harm. By modernizing the Lacey Act, the U.S. Congress can empower the FWS to first assess the potential risks associated with a species proposed for import before deciding whether to allow or prohibit its trade into the United States.
As a leading import market, the United States receives hundreds of millions of non-native animals each year. Often, they escape from captivity, are dumped by those who no longer want them, or are released into ecosystems by floods and storms. These non-native animals can spread widely, crowd out native wildlife, fundamentally alter natural systems, and spread infectious pathogens and harmful parasites.
“Under the current law, it takes an average of four years for the federal government to stop the importation of potentially harmful wildlife,” said Kristina Serbesoff-King who directs The Nature Conservancy’s Florida Invasive Species Program. “This action often occurs after a damaging, non-native species has already become established and when eradication can be expensive and nearly impossible.”
In addition to the black and white tegus, several examples of established, non-native animals in Florida that could have been prohibited under a strengthened Lacey Act include:
- Gambian giant pouched rats, a pet trade import from Africa, carried the highly contagious and potentially fatal monkeypox virus to the United States in 2003, resulting in an outbreak that sickened 71 people in six states.
- Burmese pythons, which are descendants of pets imported from Southeast Asia that were illegally released in the wild, are reproducing and thriving in the Everglades and other south Florida wetlands, estimated at 30,000 in number.
- Purple swamphens, which are native to areas surrounding the Caspian Sea and believed to have escaped from bird keepers in the Pembroke Pines area during Hurricane Andrew in 1992, are aggressive, territorial birds that can deprive native species of suitable nesting habitat and prey upon their eggs and young.
- Venomous red lionfish from the Indo-Pacific, introduced to the Atlantic Ocean as aquarium escapees, have formed large populations from Florida to as far north as New York, and have now invaded the Gulf of Mexico along the coasts of Florida and Louisiana down to Mexico. These fish are aggressive predators of shrimp and other native commercial species such as snapper and grouper.
- Nutria, rat-like, semi-aquatic rodents imported to the Louisiana in 1930 for their valuable fur, have thrived and reproduced in massive numbers, and spread to Florida and other states. They are destroying aquatic vegetation, overrunning and eroding wetlands, and pushing out native animals.
Established in 2003, the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species (NECIS) is a national partnership of 17 major conservation and environmental organizations that provides a united expert and scientific voice on invasive species policy. Its leaders include scientists, lawyers, activists, and advocates with many years of experience on invasives policy. For more information, please visit www.necis.net.