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Burmese python. Photo by Liz Barraco, FWC.

Partnering across the Everglades to battle invasives

It was 80 degrees on a winter day in Miami when several U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees attended the state-sponsored Python Challenge kick-off event. The warmth reminded us why pythons and other non-native, invasive species thrive in the Sunshine State and why the Service must continue to work with partners to curb their spread.

The Florida Everglades is one of the world’s most unique natural and cultural resources and is also the focus of the world’s largest ecosystem restoration effort. Unwanted biological invasions in the Everglades pose a significant threat to protected native ecosystems and associated species, the South Florida economy and human health. The Everglades diverse ecosystem is especially vulnerable to the introduction, invasion, and establishment of nonnative species because of its warm climate, the existence of major ports of entry, and the large-scale pet, aquarium, and ornamental plant industries active in the region.

Florida is considered “Ground Zero” in America’s fight against the spread of non-native species. Florida has more non-native reptile and amphibian species than anywhere else in the world. While the Burmese python has received wide public attention, it is just one of many reptiles, like Nile monitor lizards, various species of tegu lizards, chameleons, and an invasive frog settling into Florida’s urban and natural landscapes. Some were released, and some escaped.

These aliens can disrupt an area’s food chain and prey on native fauna. For example, the relatively unknown Cuban treefrog, originally only found in extreme South Florida, has consumed native Florida frogs while spreading up the peninsula into Georgia. Battling invasive, exotic species is integral to successful ecosystem restoration and to the sustainability of South Florida’s wondrous biodiversity.

A light colored frog with brown spots.
Cuban tree frog. Photo by Mark Yokoyama.

Much of that battle is being waged by government agencies, tribes, nonprofit organizations, and universities which formed an alliance to manage Florida’s invasive species in 17 geographic regions called Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas, or CISMAs for short. The Everglades CISMA (ECISMA) – a partnership in which the Service is a participant – was created in 2008. Its objectives include preventing the introduction of invasive species through education, formalizing areas of coordination and cooperation among land managing entities, and organizing a steering committee to provide regular oversight, recommendations, and updates to policy makers.

In 2012, ECISMA won the Department of the Interior’s “Partners in Conservation” award for outstanding conservation results through public-private cooperation and community engagement. ECISMA’s achievements in information/technology transfer and innovative outreach were singled out, including the development of web- and smart phone-based reporting applications and a 24-hour phone reporting system for invasive plants and animals, invasive species informational training programs and public outreach events such as Exotic Pet Amnesty Days.

“Biologists from Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge and the Vero Beach Ecological Services Office have been involved with ECISMA from the beginning,” said ECISMA co-chair Dennis Giardina. “They’ve participated in rapid response workdays, helped craft our Early Detection Rapid Response Plan, and participated in outreach events like Pet Amnesty Days and the Everglades Invasive Species Summit.”

As co-chair of the Early Detection and Rapid Response Subcommittee, I attend quarterly meetings to discuss the latest invasive species concerns and represent the Service and ECISMA at the Department of the Interior’s Everglades Restoration Initiatives Office to develop a comprehensive invasive species strategic action framework for South Florida.

In the Everglades region, policy makers and the public now realize that just getting the water levels right is not enough to achieve ecosystem restoration when invasive plants and animals remain uncontrolled, hampering restoration efforts. Combating invasive exotic species will be necessary for successful ecosystem restoration and preservation of natural biodiversity.

Inaction or delayed action is costly and usually results in long-term management of some invasive species. ECISMA is aiding in the protection of one of our most unique natural resources, the Everglades, and the strong agricultural and tourism-based economy of South Florida by focusing on coordinated, strategic action against invasive species. This is partnering at its best.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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