Last month, the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force unveiled a new Comprehensive Invasive Species Strategic Action Framework billed as a top priority for Everglades restoration. To paraphrase Shannon Estenoz, the Director of Everglades Restoration Initiatives for the United States Department of the Interior, "Make no mistake, we are fighting a war against invasive species in the Everglades."
No doubt you are acquainted with the lurid tales of Burmese Pythons in the Everglades, but what exactly are "invasive species"? The most common definition, as described by Executive Order is "an alien species (plant or animal) whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health."
The problems posed by invasive species to South Florida's safety, ecosystem, public health, and the economy are as infamous as they are daunting. Burmese Pythons ravage small mammal populations in the Everglades. Old World Climbing Ferns choke important wetland habitat in the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. Lionfish outcompete native fish and threaten the viability of coral reef habitats in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
So how do we win this war? There will be multiple battles on multiple fronts -- from cutting away Melaleucas in strangled wetlands to cutting through gridlock in the halls of Congress and navigating the serpentine maze of agency bureaucracy and reptilian lobbyists. Swift and sustained action through collaboration and communication amongst different parties and clear regulations are crucial. Most importantly, robust funding to implement bold plans for management and scientific research must be consistently provided.
The new Comprehensive Invasive Species framework guides federal and state agencies to cross-pollinate their knowledge and resources to tackle invasive species management in the Everglades together. It steers the conversation toward clarity in risk assessment and prevention. It sets the stage for recurring and sustained sources of funding for management activities. It advances science and research initiatives to increase our understanding of the challenges and to advance innovative solutions.
Why is it so important to act fast to prevent unwanted guests in our marshy international biosphere reserve? The "invasion curve" shows the longer you wait, the harder it is to fix the problem. Prevention and early detection/rapid response give the best return on investment to combat invasive species. Once an invasive species infests a larger region in larger numbers, the best we can hope for is containment. At some point, a species becomes so widespread that containment is impossible and resources can only result in management. The longer we have to wait for funded clear plan of attack, the harder it will be to prevail.
The victory or defeat of the new Everglades invasive species program will have far-reaching impacts, as this region is a major battleground in the nation's fight against uninvited guests. According to the University of Florida, over 85 percent of plants imported to the U.S. go through Miami, as well as 88 percent of U.S. flower imports and 55 percent of U.S. fruits and vegetables. On average, Florida receives one new pest every month. By the way, Burmese Pythons are multiplying and moving north. Some have been detected as far as Georgia. What slithers in the Everglades doesn't stay in the Everglades.
Sustaining the source of funds for invasive species management is crucial. If funding for land management is invested and then stopped before an invasion is fully controlled, the problem rebounds. For example, funding to manage Old World Climbing Fern in the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge has slowed to a trickle. Gorgeous wetland habitats that were on the verge of recovery are relapsing into a chokehold from this invasive plant, evicting birds, gators and other wildlife.
On the other hand, consistent funding over the course of years yields positive results. For example, federal and state agencies jointly provided funding for Melaleuca control in Everglades habitat over a course of 15 years. Today, the Melaleuca invasion has been largely beaten back, and long choked wetland habitats are recovering. In Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Audubon Florida, who is a private landowner, fights a battle to control invasive plants every day. Once treated, habitats that had been clogged by torpedograss, Melaleuca, and Water Hyacinth are born again as native plants return and flourish. Lost wetlands are restored and healthy habitats are enjoyed by the sanctuary's abundant native and migratory wildlife, like Wood Storks and Blue-Winged Teal ducks.
OK, so it is clear we need money for invasive species management. Where will the funding come from? For state funding, increasing ad valorem revenues in the South Florida Water Management District and state appropriations for invasive management programs in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will help. For federal funding, there needs to be dedicated and sustained sources of funding for invasive species management and scientific research to help Florida's treasured national parks and refuges. This is funding that should be added to existing levels, not subtracted from other programs. To implement the Comprehensive Invasive Species framework for the Everglades, both federal and state partners will need to work together to pool their resources toward common goals, not replicate each other. Finally, private land owners must take care of their lands to ensure surprise visitors do not spread from their property to their neighbors and beyond.
Fighting the war against invasive species is needed to secure our investment in long-term restoration goals. Machetes, herbicides, and python-sniffing dogs can take us part of the way there. Sustained funding, political will, robust science, and, did I mention sustained funding, will take us to as close as victory as we can get in this war.