MIAMI — Wildlife managers in Florida are finally moving to address an existential question: If the state is like an all-you-can eat buffet for invasive reptiles originally introduced as exotic pets, then why are some of those species still imported and sold by breeders and pet stores?
Until 2010, the now infamous Burmese python was easily found at pet stores across Florida, even as scientific evidence showed they were partly behind a decline in native species in the Everglades. Wildlife managers took too long to act and now the snakes are here to stay, eating through the Everglades' dwindling supply of mammals and disrupting the balance of predator and prey.
Florida wildlife managers want that to change, and fast. They are proposing the strictest set of rules yet prohibiting in-state breeding and sale of tegus and other exotic reptiles considered high-risk with the goal of preventing an infestation. Importation also would be banned.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will vote this week on final rules that place on the prohibited species list all tegus and green iguanas, as well as other reptiles to protect the state's ecosystems. The meeting on Thursday and Friday will be open to public comments. The proposed legislation groups species like tegus and green iguanas into the same category as pythons and Nile monitor lizards, which cannot be sold as pets.
"We need to take a hard look at how we regulate the breeders and the exotic pet trade as a whole," said Rodney Barreto, FWC's newly elected chairman. "We are very concerned for the native animal population, especially considering the damage that pythons are doing."
If passed, the new rules will go into effect after 45-60 days, and after that reptile businesses and pet owners will have an additional 90 days to come into compliance with the new rules. The proposed language says that no one in Florida will be allowed to sell, own, breed or trade tegus and iguanas with a few exceptions such as people working with education exhibitions, research or eradication and control activities. Wildlife mangers are targeting the exotic pet trade because they say most invasive fish and wildlife in Florida were established through the escape or intentional release of captive animals.
Ecological and human threat
FWC says the exotic species pose a significant threat to Florida's ecology, economy and human health and safety, and that its current regulations are no longer effective in managing their expansion and damage. With more than $10 million spent annually on invasive species, joint efforts by FWC and other state and federal agencies are nowhere near controlling some of the more widespread invaders.
The new proposed rules also state that having the listed reptiles as pets will be prohibited. No licenses are currently required for pet iguanas or tegus, so people who own those animals will be able to get a free permit to keep them through the end of the pet's life. But after that they won't be able to buy or adopt new ones. FWC will continue to allow pet owners to surrender their prohibited animals without penalty through a pet amnesty program. Breeders could still sell animals taken from the wild to out-of-state customers, including those they receive from licensed trappers.
Among the most controversial rule is the phasing out of commercial breeding of tegus and iguanas by June 2024. Reptile keepers wanted their businesses to be grandfathered in to continue to operate.