March 8, 2021

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‘Snake-pocalypse’? Florida plans ban on owning pythons, many other ‘high-risk’ reptiles

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BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – If wildlife officials get their way later this month, Florida will ban owning or breeding six types of pythons, the green anaconda and nine other “high-risk” reptiles.

Biologists say the scaly subjects of their prohibition wreak ecological mayhem by swallowing native birds, mammals as large as deer, and in the Burmese python’s case, also spread a foreign parasite that chokes native pygmy rattlesnakes to death.

But serpent lovers and critics of the proposal say the move is nothing less than a state-orchestrated snake-pocalypse targeting their pets and businesses. They argue the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission lacks science to justify the ban, is biased against their trade, and has much bigger exotic fish and invasive species to fry than snakes kept by hobbyists. 

An anaconda was captured in a Melbourne neighborhood on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016.

To Bob Potts, FWC’s new reptile rule reeks of regulatory overreach, verging on – well – cold-blooded.

“FWC is just really throwing us under the bus with this,” said Potts, owner of Herp Hobby Shop in Oldsmar, Florida. “It’s completely arbitrary. That’s why we’re all fired up about this.”

FWC says Burmese pythons and the other 15 exotic species are a significant threat to Florida’s ecology, economy and human health and safety. And managing the threat is not cheap. FWC and its federal partners spend more than $8 million a year to manage not just the animals but the destruction they cause.

Iguanas, for one, burrow into and cause extensive damage to seawalls, canal banks, roads and water control structures. And dealing with tegu lizards alone consumes a third of the agency’s budget for managing invasive species.

Previously:Florida python hunters didn’t miss a beat during the pandemic – they’re breaking records

So at FWC’s Feb. 25 meeting, the wildlife commission plans to make final proposed rules that will:  

  • Eliminate commercial breeding and pet ownership of 16 high-risk reptiles.
  • Put these high-risk reptiles on the state’s prohibited species list, limiting possession to permitted facilities engaged in educational exhibition, research or eradication or control activities.
  • The 16 reptiles include Burmese pythons; reticulated pythons; scrub pythons; Northern African pythons; Southern African Pythons; amethystine pythons; green anacondas; Nile monitor lizards; tegus (all species) and green iguanas.

“The reptile industry as a whole is concerned with broad actions like this because, even though this draft rule might not be directly affecting your pet reptile today, if it passes as currently written, any reptile might be prohibited next,” warns Pete Bandre, owner Incredible Pets in Melbourne.

FWC received more than 1,400 written comments and 5,500 surveys about the proposed rule and held 10 workshops with more than 200 participants. 

Under the proposed rule, FWC will not issue any new licenses to sell the 16 “high-risk” reptiles on the prohibited list.

Those currently breeding and selling the eight species of currently listed Conditional reptiles will no longer be able to do either for commercial use. Some reptile license-holders will be grandfathered in if they meet certain conditions. And people can keep their reptiles for the life of the animal with a free permit, but these species will no longer be allowed to be sold as pets in Florida.

If approved, the rule would take effect in a few months, FWC officials said.

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Business owner worries of ‘significant financial implications’

The rule is almost certain to be challenged.

Some past federal attempts to limit python sales haven’t held up in court.In April 2017, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s decision that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lacked authority under federal law to restrict interstate trade of Burmese pythons. The United States Association of Reptile Keepers, based in North Carolina, sued the federal government in 2013 to undo a nationwide 2012 ban on importing pythons and other “constrictor” snakes or transporting them across state lines.

However, if the reptile ban goes through, Bandre said he worries about the “significant financial implications” more than any potential ecological fallout that might happen without it.

Most of the 16 listed reptiles are tropical species that can’t survive north of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, Bandre added, confining them to South Florida. While it’s uncertain how long they can survive in more temperate zones, tegus have been found in the wild as far north as Florida’s panhandle, FWC says.

Currently, there are more than 5,000 licenses in Florida that authorize possession of wildlife in captivity, FWC says. The licenses cover a variety of native and nonnative species for activities including breeding, exhibition, sale and personal use. 

Between 1999 and 2010, more than 12 million wild-caught reptiles were imported into the U.S., and of those more than 9 million reptiles were imported through Florida ports, FWC says.

The state agency estimates 180 of 593 introduced invasive species in Florida are reptiles, 92% of them introduced by the live trade of animals.

Native to South America, tegus can grow up to 4 feet in length.

FWC spends $3 million a year managing invasive species, the agency says, with one of its primary priorities over the past few years being the Argentine black and white tegu, where almost $1 million is being spent yearly in trying to reduce its population.

Tegus, known to eat crops including squash and strawberries, are considered breeding and likely expanding in four areas of Florida. Like many proposed for the prohibited list, their foothold in Florida began as escaped or released pets.

A green iguana was captured Monday afternoon on a Cocoa Beach dock.

Green iguanas have been established in Florida since the 1960s, FWC says. Since 2017, the state agency and its partners removed more 5,000 green iguanas from the wild.

The lizard is the bane of Southwest Florida homeowners, where it munches up landscaping and burrows into and damages seawalls.

In a Jan. 27 letter to FWC, Audubon Florida cited $1.8 million in damages caused by green iguana burrows that threatened the integrity of water management structures in West Palm Beach. Audubon Florida called for the an end to breeding and selling these “high-risk” reptiles as soon as possible.

The Audubon letter also said that pythons are “decimating” wood storks, snowy egrets, mammals and other native species in the Everglades.

Donna Kalil and her daughter Deanna Kalil hunt for Burmese pythons in the Everglades west of Miami on Monday October, 28, 2019. Donna is part of the South Florida Water Management District's python hunting team. She has pulled hundreds of the invasive snakes from the Everglades. The duo captured three snakes on this evening.

Pythons aren’t exactly a picnic, either. Burmese pythons are already inflicting untold ecological damage in the Everglades, where they were first spotted in 1979. Now, some estimates put their population there as high as 250,000. These slithering ambush predators can grow more than 19 feet long and produce clutches of eight to 107 eggs, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. 

Invasive reptiles also spread foreign parasites dangerous to other wildlife. A 2019 study, led by researchers at Stetson University, showed that parasitic worms spread by invasive Burmese pythons are killing native Florida pygmy rattlesnakes.

Burmese pythons have evolved to live with the parasite, but in the lungs and tracheas of pigmy rattlesnakes, the parasites can block the native snake’s airway, the researchers said. 

This Burmese python killed several years ago in the Everglades was nearly 16 feet long. It was found with a 76-pound deer inside and weighed 139 pounds without the deer inside of it. It weighed a collective 215 pounds when found.

Climate change makes Florida paradise for invasive reptiles

FWC also fears that more pythons, termites and invasive lionfish are expected to benefit from fewer hard freezes in Florida, as the planet warms.

Studies show fewer hard freezes due to climate change could drive blunt shifts in the makeup of Florida’s plants and animals.

Big, hungry birds and winter cold snaps keep some small invasive lizards in check. 

But in small islands such as Boca Grande, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, green iguanas already dominate the dunes, where they munch down hibiscus and other plants and burrow nests into canal banks and seawalls.

To help keep such invaders at bay, Florida wildlife officials hold Exotic Pet Amnesty Day events, where people can hand over their snakes and other exotic pets, which then get sent to zoos and other qualified adopters. 

“With COVID, we obviously have not not been able to do that like we usually do but we still have the option to turn them in and we do try to find it a home with a qualified adopter,” Segelson said.

But Bandre and other reptile sellers say FWC’s proposed ban also isn’t grounded in solid science to prove it’s needed.

“Unfortunately with emotionally charged issues like this, many times misinformation rules the day, simply because the thought of giant snakes or ravenous lizards roaming the state sound like they could be dangerous to people and pets as well as the environment,” Bandre said.

But FWC biologists cite dozens of peer-reviewed studies that document impacts of foreign reptiles already established in Florida and elsewhere.

Nonetheless,Potts says the amount of resources FWC puts toward controlling exotic reptiles is overkill, and better spent on invasive species he sees as far more damaging, such as feral pigs.

“Why don’t they lay off iguanas until they get all the damn pigs under control?” Potts said.

But mostly, he fears what the new regulations will do to his business. 

“It’s overregulation to the max,” Potts said.

.

Follow reporter Jim Waymer on Twitter: @JWayEnviro

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