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Reptile Breeders Respond To State Proposal That Could Prohibit Pythons, Other Exotics

This is called a gold tegu lizard. They are invasive nonnative animals, and are considered a high risk species to Florida's natural environment.
This is called a gold tegu lizard. They are invasive nonnative animals, and are considered a high risk species to Florida's natural environment.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is holding virtual workshops for public comment on a new set of rules for invasive nonnative reptiles.

Draft rules approved by the FWC in July include changing the listing for “conditional” species, like Burmese pythons and Nile monitor lizards, to "prohibited."

Importing and exporting these species in Florida would not be allowed, and possession would only be permissible with a permit for specific purposes, like eradication, education, or research.

The state would also make tegu lizards and green iguanas "prohibited," although there is no proposal to end exporting, as Jennifer Leon of Hillsborough County would like to see.

"Here in Hillsborough County, I am acutely concerned about the established reproducing population of tegus flourishing in our region and their effect on our wildlife and wild lands," Leon said during a virtual meeting held on Tuesday.

According to the FWC, reproducing tegu populations in Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Charlotte and, most recently, St. Lucie counties occurred through escapes or releases. They compete with and prey upon Florida’s native wildlife, including some imperiled and protected species.

Leon said Florida taxpayers have to clean up the mess.

Iguana and tegu breeder Gina Gonzalez responded to Leon's comment, saying breeders are taxpayers too.

"It's our business. I've been working on this for nine years and it's how I provide for my family, how I get to stay home and take care of my kids," Gonzalez said. "And this really affects my family and what we're trying to do here and what we've invested so much in."

One proposed regulation would limit the breeding, selling and exporting of tegu lizards and green iguanas.

Only those who had a valid license on Jan. 1 and documented an inventory of tegus and iguanas in their 2019 application would be able to continue selling, exhibiting and breeding them, as long as their licenses remain active.

Many support phasing out the commercial use of these high-risk species over time, but tegu breeder Jesse Hardin of Charlotte County disagrees, saying that eliminating Florida from the industry would be a hit for the global market.

"I mean I send tegus to Europe. I've sent tegus to China, Canada. And I'm a very small-time breeder, in my opinion," Hardin said. "I only have 60 animals. I know people that send to 15-20 different countries a year — sometimes more, so eliminating Florida definitely would really draw back from a lot of the international trade for just the Florida state."

Chris Farrell, with the conservation organization Audubon Florida, helped to close out Tuesday’s workshop, explaining why he supports the FWC’s rule updates.

“The species in question, they're breeding in Florida in the wild, they've been documented causing numerous ecological impacts, plus impacts to agriculture and public infrastructure and private property,” Farrell said.

“The economic costs alone are in the millions of dollars per year now. And then together with the uncounted ecological costs, we feel this definitely warrants the actions that are proposed by FWC.”

The last workshops on these proposed rules for invasive nonnative reptiles are Friday, Oct. 9 from 9 am to 12 pm, and Saturday, Oct. 10 from 12 pm to 3 pm.

Click here to register for either of the remaining workshops.

The comments from the workshops, as well as those submitted online and in emails, could be presented to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission as early as December.

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Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of Morning Edition at WUSF Public Media, and former reporter and host of All Things Considered for WGCU News.