Ending invasive species group ‘a disaster,’ says Florida scientist who helped start it

Citing cost, the Trump Administration shuts down 20-year-old advisory committee.
University of Florida researchers hold a 15-foot Burmese python captured in Everglades National Park in 2009. The python had just eaten a 6-foot alligator. Florida has more invasive species than any other state.
University of Florida researchers hold a 15-foot Burmese python captured in Everglades National Park in 2009. The python had just eaten a 6-foot alligator. Florida has more invasive species than any other state.
Published Oct. 7, 2019|Updated Oct. 7, 2019

For 20 years, the Invasive Species Advisory Committee coordinated all of the federal government’s efforts at controlling pythons and other invasive species plaguing the nation, aiding in the design of regulations and scientific approaches to dealing with them.

But last week the Trump Administration officially suspended the committee, in effect disbanding it at a time when Florida — which has more invasive species than any other state — has doubled down on its attempts to stop pythons.

An Interior Department official said this was part of an effort to consider “the collective cost” of all federal advisory committees and “evaluate how those funds might be better utilized to address their missions.”

To the Florida scientist who helped start the committee, Donald Schmitz, shutting down this group right now is nothing short of “a disaster.”

RELATED STORY: The cult origins of one of Florida’s most dangerous invasive species.

“This is exactly the wrong time for this to happen,” agreed Daniel Simberloff, a University of Tennessee biology professor who edits the scientific journal Biological Invasions. He served on the committee during its first decade of existence. The United Nations just started an invasive species program, he said, showing the rest of the world is at last waking up to the threat.

Schmitz, a biologist who worked for what’s now called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, was one of the state’s first scientists to focus on the harm being done by invasive species. Major concerns then included melaleuca, — a water-guzzling tree taking over the Everglades — and hydrilla — a water plant with long, dangling vines that entangle boat motors.

In 1996 he and another scientist co-wrote a letter to then-Vice President Al Gore urging federal action to coordinate all the agencies working on the issue, and they got 500 scientists to sign it. In 1999, then-President Bill Clinton signed an executive order laying out the federal response, which created the committee.

The committee was “desperately needed,” Schmitz said, because there are 176 entities under the federal government that have some responsibility for controlling invasive species. Helping their cause was a growing recognition of the economic impact of such invaders as fire ants and Formosan termites, he said.

RELATED STORY: Two women from St. Petersburg like to hunt pythons in the Everglades. We went with them.

Over its two decades, the committee tackled everything from defining what constitutes an invasive species to looking at the role of invasive wildlife in spreading new parasites to native wildlife — something that’s happened with the pythons in the Everglades. It’s also examined the use of genetic alterations to get rid of invasive animals by producing sterile offspring, a tactic that some scientists say offers hope for ridding Florida’s Everglades of pythons.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every weekday morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

But this past spring, the Interior Department slashed in half the funding for the invasive species program, committee chairman Chuck Bargeron said. Meanwhile nobody new won an appointment to the committee, even though several of the members’ terms were expiring, he said. The number of committee members was cut from 32 to 16.

Those who remained could see what was about to happen, said Bargeron, who works at the University of Georgia’s Center for Invasive Species & Ecosystem Health. He did not think the decision to shut down the committee was based on anything the committee did.

“I think a lot of these (federal) advisory committees are going away,” he said. “This is just one of them.”

On the same day news broke about the end of the invasive species group, a similar decision was revealed about the Marine Protected Areas Advisory Committee. Both fell victim to a June executive order signed by President Trump directing all federal agencies to shut down at least a third of their scientific advisory boards. Last week marked the deadline for choosing which ones.

The minutes of the invasive committee’s final meeting in May show that an Interior Department official showed up to explain to the members that they were going on an “administratively inactive status” because of “budget constraints." The official, principal deputy assistant secretary Scott Cameron, said this was part of a broader effort between the Interior and Agriculture departments to consider “the collective cost” of such federal advisory committees.

RELATED STORY: Florida python program nabs 900th snake, including new record

At least one member of the invasive committee thinks that’s bogus. Laura Meyerson, a University of Rhode Island professor, said its budget is just $30,000, so claiming it’s being abolished because of the cost “doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

To her, the decision to eliminate the committee seems “kind of crazy” given the rising national concern about invasive species — especially in Florida.

The Sunshine State has been collecting invasives for five centuries. One of Florida’s Spanish explorers, Hernando de Soto, landed here in 1539 and left behind the first invasive species, feral hogs. Greenhouse frogs and Cuban anoles arrived aboard cargo ships in the 1800s. Fire ants were first spotted building hills here in the 1930s.

Now the state has everything from walking catfish to sex-changing Asian swamp eels to giant African land snails that were smuggled in by a religious cult.

The first report of a Burmese python turning up in the Everglades came in 1979. Since then their population has exploded and is now estimated to range into the tens of thousands and perhaps more. Meanwhile, where the pythons rule the landscape, small mammals such as foxes, raccoons and otters have all but disappeared.

RELATED STORY: DeSantis doubles down on python removal.

In August, Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged to double funding for python removal this year and said the state will work with the federal government to expand access to Big Cypress National Preserve so that hunters can catch more snakes.

``We have been advancing python management policies for several years and there’s been some success but we need to do more,’’ said DeSantis, a Trump ally.