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As Lawmakers Consider Budget Cuts, Scientists Defend Invasive Species Programs

Ranger holding a Python in Florida's Everglades National Park
Ranger holding a Python in Florida's Everglades National Park

Florida is a prime breeding ground for invasive species that can threaten the state’s ecology and economy. For every lionfish or Burmese python that’s captured, thousands remain. And the sheer scope of the problem is pushing some lawmakers to ask how much of a difference state funding actually makes.

From spiny lionfish to the kudzu vine to lizards called tegus, invasive species are making their mark on Florida. Because they have no natural predators, non-native species can quickly dominate their new environment. One of the most famous Florida cases is the Burmese python. They can be more than 17 feet long and have been known to eat deer and even alligators. And conservationists are taking some un-conventional steps to combat them. The state now hosts the python challenge, a sort of open season on the reptiles.

Apart from hunting seasons and fishing tournaments, biologists from multiple state agencies and universities are targeting each species individually. But all of these efforts are barely scratching the surface. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, a single lionfish can produce up to two million eggs a year. That stat struck Republican Representative Chuck Clemons of Jonesville at a recent committee meeting.

“All of our efforts last year netted 110,000 or 120,000 lionfish with all of the round-ups and the rodeos and diff things like that. So if we are twenty times more effective than we were last year, that would equate, based upon my arithmetic, to the offspring of one lionfish!” Clemons said.

"Don't let there be another Burmese python. Don't let there be another lionfish. Let those be the last problems like that that we have to solve."

Thomas Eason oversees conservation at FWC, and he admits the problem does seem insurmountable. He recently made his pitch to state lawmakers.

“This is a bigger problem than FWC can do. We really appreciate your interest in this issue and are here to work with you on how we can do more. We’re doing good things, but to be honest we are still clawing to try to figure out how to start holding even or trying to start winning this battle with some of these invasive species,” Eason said.

But some legislators are questioning if the state is getting a strong return on its investment. Republican Ben Albritton of Bartow oversees the House Agriculture and Natural Resources budget. And he’s singling out land management and invasive species programs for special scrutiny.

“I would lay that up as an opportunity to potentially save some money. But I would also ask our agencies to give us some direction on what kind of progress has that funding provided us? And if that funding is reduced, then what are our expectations?” Albritton asked.

Credit FWC

University of Florida biologist Frank Mazzotti specializes in invasive reptiles and amphibians. He says the numbers can seem overwhelming. But he says conservationists have overcome similar odds before, in the fight against a tree called melaleuca.

“And twenty years ago you would’ve been sitting there and saying I’m pressing you on this, melaleuca produces millions of seeds, what are we going to do about it?" he asked. "And the answer is that we studied it, we came up with biological control, we invested resources in solving the problem, and we solved the problem!”

But Mazzotti says the best way to combat invasive species is prevention.

"You want your best return on investment? Focus on early detection and rapid response. Don’t let there be another Burmese python. Don’t let there be another lionfish. Let those be the last problems like that that we have to solve,” he said.

The risks associated with invasive species seemed to strike a chord with lawmakers at a recent workshop, including Republican Ben Albritton who initially seemed skeptical. But it’s still up to conservationists to defend their funding.

As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.