Sun-Sentinel.com, 1/7/17, by David Flesher
Anyone can buy an Argentine black and white tegu lizard for less than $200 at exotic pets stores in Deerfield Beach, Miami and other cities.
But down in the Everglades, state wildlife officers are trapping and killing those same South American reptiles as nuisance animals. The escaped and released pets are chomping their way through bird and turtle nests and threatening to spread around the state.
A Miami state senator has introduced a bill to pay for hunters to go into the Everglades of Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties to kill tegus, which can reach a length of four feet. But despite calls to ban sales to the public, the state wildlife commission says it is not contemplating any restrictions.
Like Burmese pythons, green iguanas and other non-native species that have established themselves in Florida, tegus in the wild are a by-product of the exotic pet business. Unlike Burmese pythons, they can tolerate cold, which means that can spread farther than pythons. And unlike pythons, they can still be bought at Florida pet stores or purchased over the internet for shipment to a Florida address.
Kate McFall, Florida director for the Humane Society of the United States, which has gone to court to restrict reptile imports, says banning sales would be more effective than mounting an elaborate hunting campaign.
"Kudos to the lawmaker for trying to do something to address this, but this seems more like a recreational opportunity to hunt them," she said. "Banning them would make a lot more sense. We've learned our lesson in Florida from other species.”
Tegus are native to Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. There are two known breeding populations: one around Homestead in southern Miami-Dade County, where there have been more than 2,000 sightings; the other in Hillsborough County, where the number is less than 200, according to a database operated by the University of Georgia's Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health.
About two dozen have been spotted in Broward and Palm Beach counties, but they are thought to be isolated released pets, not a breeding population.
As non-picky eaters that grow big enough to discourage all but the largest predators, tegus have treated Florida as a vast buffet table. They eat fruit, vegetables, insects and lizards and love dog and cat food. They invade the nests of ground-nesting birds, crocodiles and alligators, consuming the eggs. They invade gopher tortoise burrows and eat young tortoises.
"Tegus negatively impact native wildlife because they compete with them for both food and habitat," said Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the state wildlife commission. "Tegus are generalist feeders and can eat a wide variety of prey items.”
The silver lining in the case of Burmese pythons is they may not be able to survive year-round much farther north than their current habitat in the Everglades. Biologists are still debating the northern limits of their range.
But tegus can survive temperatures as low as 35 degrees, theoretically opening up much of the southern United States to colonization.
With concern about the tegu growing, state Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, has introduced a bill to fund teams of hunters to go after them.
The bill calls for spending $300,000 a year for each of the next two years in a part of the Everglades managed by the state called the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area.
It covers much of the Everglades of western Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. The bill also calls for seeking permission from the National Park Service to send hunters into Everglades National Park.
Michael Barrera, owner of Snakes at Sunset, said such spending would be unnecessary because people would catch them for free if the United States would loosen export restrictions.
A market for tegus exists in China, Indonesia and other countries as pets, food and sources of leather. He said he would offer trappers bounties, if it were legal, so he could obtain them and export them.
"If they want to catch and sell tens of thousands or whatever number they claim is out there overseas and out of our hair they should let the permit process be a lot faster for those animals because they could be exported every month by the thousands," he said.