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Sarasota Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009 8 years ago

County works to scale back iguana population

by: Robin Hartill Managing Editor

The 2-foot brown lizard came crawling out of a gopher-tortoise mound. Gayle Wardner spotted it from her condominium at Bay Tree Club on Siesta Key. Wardner, a Siesta Key Association member, mentioned the sighting at the association’s July 2 meeting.

After that, reports of black spiny-tailed and green iguana sightings on Turtle Beach started flooding in to Wardner via fax and e-mail. There were multiple sightings at Island Reef condominium. One of Wardner’s neighbors at Bay Tree Club saw an iguana swimming in the condominium pool. Another Siesta Key resident saw an iguana in his home swimming pool. And at least three residents say they have spotted a 5-foot golden tegu lizard.

In February, Sarasota County began keeping records of exotic-reptile sightings. Since then, between 80 and 90 have been reported. And those are just the documented sightings.

Wildlife specialist George Cera’s rule of thumb: For every one lizard spotted, there are 10 more.

“Sarasota County definitely has a problem,” he said.

Cera is the author of “The Iguana Cookbook: Save Florida, Eat an Iguana,” published earlier this year. He advocates eating iguanas, which people do in Central and South America, to avoid the lizard population’s rampant growth.

Like many people who have lizards as pets, he thinks they’re “neat” looking. But he knows the environmental havoc they wreak when released in the environment. He wrote the book to generate as much publicity as possible about why people shouldn’t keep exotic reptiles as pets.

The county has hired Cera to remove the iguana population by any accepted method.
Shooting often works best, Cera said, because black spiny-tailed iguanas are the fastest lizards in the world, sprinting at speeds of up to 21-and-a-half mph.

Traps are least effective.

“Trapping by itself, the success rate is 8%,” Cera said.

Exotic lizards have no natural predators in Florida, but they interfere with local ecosystems by eating nest eggs, small turtles and birds.

“If there’s a gopher-tortoise burrow handy, and they see they don’t need to do any work, they’ll take over,” said Chance Steed, environmental specialist for Sarasota County.

They carry salmonella in their saliva and excrement, which could infect a human if scratched.

In November 2006, Lee County hired Cera to eradicate Boca Grande’s soaring iguana population. Of the approximately 16,000 lizards Cera removed from that island over a 16-month period, at least two or three were from toilets.

Within the next week, Cera will begin to assess the situation on Turtle Beach, and, most likely, begin removing lizards. Earlier this year, he removed a total of 16 iguanas from private properties on Siesta Key.

Already, he has been removing lizards from Blind Pass Park on Manasota Key and Lemon Bay Park, in Englewood, where iguanas are more populous than on Turtle Beach.

According to Steed, the county’s goal is to control the iguana population before it reaches the level that Boca Grande’s reached — as many as 20,000, according to some estimates.

In June, the Sarasota County Commission approved $50,000 for a public-lands project to remove exotic reptiles from county land and provide education about the problem over the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. But to avoid rapid population growth, the county allocated $3,000 to begin removal sooner, rather than later.

For residents like Wardner, the removal is a good, first step. She is encouraging other Siesta residents to fax Sen. Bill Nelson’s office urging him to include all invasive and injurious reptiles, including iguanas, to Senate Bill 373, which, in its current state, would ban pythons from importation and interstate trade. She worries that iguanas have already eaten many eggs from Turtle Beach’s gopher-tortoise mounds.

“Allowing these pets to escape does more harm than people realize,” she said.


• Report it by contacting Sarasota County at 861-5000. Include as much specific information as possible, such as a physical description of the creature and the location of the sighting.

• Hire a professional to remove the animal from private property.

• Avoid approaching exotic lizards. Although they generally aren’t aggressive, they will scratch if they feel threatened.

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