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WaterLine photo by Capt. Josh Olive

A male red-headed agama lizard — just one of hundreds of exotic species overrunning the Florida landscape.

Since I’ve been running WaterLine for 10 years, I often assume that I have some sort of rapport with our readership. I feel like we kind of know each other. Because of that, I sometimes don’t spell out everything in excruciating detail. But in the past couple weeks, I’ve come to realize that isn’t always the case. So, I’m going to take this column to go into some detail on my views about non-native species.

I got a call last week about my recent Florida Is Wild Column titled “Doves: Nature’s idiots.” The caller (who blocked his number and did not leave his name or any way to contact him) left a message in which he said I was a terrible example for kids and that I needed to change my “crappy” attitude about nature.

In responding to a letter about that column, I said that if I could wave a wand and eliminate exotic species from Florida, I would do it — even if that meant killing them. Some might hold this up as an example of my “crappy” attitude, but they simply have a limited understanding of how things work.

Up until about 500 years ago, animals and plants from different geographical areas were separated by things like oceans or deserts — places where the habitat was completely unsuited to them, creating barriers that were effectively impenetrable. Then came the era of the Columbian Exchange, named for our old pal Chris who sailed the ocean blue in 1492. Suddenly, Old World species such as pigs, rats and citrus were let loose in the Americas.

From the perspective of the native species which had been living here for uncounted thousands of years, this was not good. Animals and plants evolve to fit their climate and geography, but also to fit other life around them. A flowering plant and its pollinators evolve together. So do a predator and its prey.

As an aside, I’m using the language of science here. If you prefer to couch things in religious terms — to say that God made it that way — that’s fine too. The point here is that the ecosystem was made such that all its parts worked more or less together.

Further, all of these parts are connected in ways that are often not readily apparent. When that balance is disrupted, it can have widespread effects that are not easy to foresee. A great example: Salmon streams are bear magnets. The bears eat salmon but focus mainly on the high-calorie eggs. The bodies are left behind to be scavenged or to rot. As a result of such rich natural fertilizer, trees alongside such streams grow faster.

Pull on those threads — for example, introduce non-native trout that eat baby salmon — and weird things can happen. The salmon are reduced, and so are the bears. No carcasses feed the plants, which grow less lushly and are more prone to damage from introduced insects. They die, and their roots no longer hold the soil against erosion, which muddies the formerly clear stream and leaves it unsuited to any of the native fish that once lived there.

This is the problem with having exotic plants and animals in our environment. What damage are they doing? Some we can see (pythons eating birds and mammals in the Everglades, brown anoles displacing the native greens), and some we cannot. Some we can’t even guess at.

Now, I have no animosity or hate toward those exotic animals. They can’t help that they are here in a place they don’t belong. We did that, by releasing their forebears intentionally or accidentally. It’s all our fault, 100 percent. These creatures, like all others, are just doing what they can to survive.

However, the fact remains that their presence is damaging and disruptive to what is supposed to be here — what has been here for far longer. Therefore, I stand by my statement: If I could remove them all, I would.

But that’s just a fantasy. Here’s the part that I really want you all to understand. I am pragmatic by nature. I recognize the futility of attempting such removal in the real world. Witness the debacle of python eradication in the Everglades. It’s been years of work and many millions spent, and they’ve removed fewer than 2,000 snakes. That’s about how many are produced every year by just 50 breeding females — and there are thousands of breeding females. It’s a bad, unfunny joke.

Same with exotic plants. The state spends a huge amount (seat-of-the-pants guess, based on several sources: $30 million a year) on removing melaleuca, hydrilla, water hyacinth, Brazilian pepper, climbing fern and more than 100 other species. Will they ever get it all? Has any invasive plant reached the point of being a problem and then been eliminated? No and no.

So I have adopted a live and let live philosophy. I know where I can find spiny-tailed iguanas, Argentine tegus, veiled chameleons, knight anoles, marine toads and Cuban treefrogs. I have caught (and released, unless I wanted them for food) Mayan cichlids, oscars, blue tilapia, peacock cichlids, clown knifefish and walking catfish. I regularly see monk parakeets, Muscovy ducks, starlings, house sparrows, collared doves and pigeons. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to locate feral pigs or cats if you want.

I don’t shoot them. I don’t hit them with rocks. I do sometimes get angry, but I realize that acting against them is pretty pointless. It won’t bring back the native species they’ve displaced. That damage is done. These species are established here now. They’ll be in Florida until a changing climate takes them out (be that 100 or 100,000 years from now) or until we pave the entire state.

Since we can’t get rid of them, we might as well embrace them. The old Florida is gone. Just like the Cracker culture that I saw the functional end of when I was a kid, it’s been overrun by a stampede of newcomers from all over the globe. Sure, there are still some relics around, and there will be for a while. But the change has happened already. There’s no going back.

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@
WaterLineWeekly.com.

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