Extinction of and in the Everglades

For over fifteen I traveled to Florida for my job.  I’ll never forget driving the long stretch of highway between Miami and Naples.  That highway is Route 41, officially named Tamiami Trail, but nicknamed Alligator Alley.  My broker gave me directions but failed to mention there were no gas stations along the way.  I drove the highway during the late afternoon and early evening.  I almost ran out of gas.

  Alligator Alley

As the sun was still up, the highway was beautiful but isolated.  Occasionally a car would pass me on my side or the other side of the divided highway.  Because of my gas situation, and once the sun began to set, it was a little unnerving.  I was never so happy to see that gas station as I approached the end of the alley.

After that first trip across the expanse of the Everglades, I have remained fascinated by this natural phenomena.  Thus, when I recently read an article about how the area teeters on the edge of devastation I knew I had to write about it.

For the U.S., the Everglades could be named the poster child of all the damage we humans have wreaked on our environment all in the name of progress and convenience, not to mention stupidity and selfishness.

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Climate change.  According to environmentalists, Everglades National Park is one of the most vulnerable national treasures of the U.S.  Most of the Everglades  are only a few feet above sea level.   Resulting from global warming, as sea levels rise, that water seeps into the Everglades wreaking havoc on the land, waters and animals dependent on the fresh water of the glades.

Currently, there’s a project underway to restore the Everglades.  Much of its destruction occurred in the last century.  The project is a daunting one and, when completed, is estimated it will cost taxpayers in the double digit billions.  However, until the 1970’s no one was even aware of the degradation.

In 1970, a proposal to build a jet port in the Big Cypress Swamp came under attack by environmentalists who claimed the jet port would devastate the ecosystem of the Everglades.  This proposed project catapulted the on-going degradation of one of our most precious national parks to the forefront.  Previous to this proposed jet port, all Everglade projects had been funded and undertaken in the name of protecting the Everglades.  In fact, all these prior projects only made matters worse.

An example of an ill-advised, ill-researched project was the C-38 canal meant to control flooding, a natural occurrence brought about by natural elements such as seasonal hurricanes. Kissemmee River

The canal was designed to straighten out the meandering Kissimmee River.  This 103-mile river is a central player in the Everglades’ ecosystem as it links two lakes, Lake Kissimmee to the north and Lake Okeechobee to the south.  It forms the headwaters of the Kissimmee River-Lake Okeechobee-Everglades ecosystem.  The Kissimmee River Watershed of 3,000 square miles and its floodplain supports a diverse eco-system community of waterfowl, wading birds, fish, alligators and a myriad of other animals.  When completed, and the river straightened out, the project caused tremendous damage to the ecosystem including the destruction of animal habitats.  The new flow of the river adversely affected the water quality in the region as high levels of phosphorus and mercury were discovered.  The current project includes the restoration of the rivers original flow, and that restoration represents a huge chunk of the total cost.

Another environmental devastation is also taking place.  Global warming is causing lost habitat as sea water seeps into the park.  Already lost is a huge portion of Cape Sable, a peninsula located in the Southernmost part of Florida and the Everglades.  Many animals, dependent on this area, are finding their species are in grave danger of extinction, including a small non-migratory bird, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow.  This little bird is called the Goldilocks bird.

goldilocks sparrow

As in the children’s fable, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, this bird requires that its habitat conditions must be just right for reproduction to be successful.

The Cape Sable seaside sparrow has evolved in harmony with periodic fires and flooding.  Fires are a natural and necessary occurrence in the Everglades as it helps renew old areas.  For this bird who needs just right conditions, the fires must be timed in harmony with their reproduction cycle.  However, due to human activity, fires are occurring out of sync with the sparrow’s reproduction.

Other just right conditions apply to water levels which must be natural and not out of whack with reproduction.  When unnatural water levels occur, the males won’t sing, and mating will not take place.  With only eight (as of 2013) members of this sub-species remaining, this little bird’s fate seems etched in the history humans have been writing since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

On top of global warming, over half of the Everglades have been totally lost to urbanization and agricultural development.  In 2011, the state of Florida began a project to buy back 200,000+ acres of land from sugarcane farmers with the intent of restoring the land to its original wetlands condition.  The buy back is yet another long-term, costly project connected to our species disrespect of our environment.  Where humans have assumed dominance over our tiny, blue planet, we’re finding that we are mere members of a vast environment where everything is interconnected and dependent on each other.

These assaults on the Everglades are a direct result of our species efforts to lay claim to all the resources of our planet.  We have acted as if our resources are infinite, and we’ve acted as if we are the only beings having the rights to use the resources or even to exist.  The Everglades is just a small piece of the catastrophic event that is taking place globally.   

If all these assaults on the Everglades National Park are not enough, the park now must deal with a new environmental problem.  It is also a direct consequence of human behavior.  It is dressed, however, in a multi-colored cloak called social culture.

In the 1955 issue of LIFE magazine the article, Throwaway Living brought to light a trend which reflects a cultural phenomenon known as throwaway society.

A throwaway society is one that is predominately influenced by consumerism.  The term expounds on our modern culture of overproduction, over-consumption, our obsessive notion of short-lived, disposable items, as well as our insatiable appetite to own whatever we desire at any given moment.  Nothing is exempt from suffering the consequences of the sense of self-gratification a throwaway society influences.  The Everglades included.

In the 1980’s, first sightings of a creature, native to Southeast Asia, yet loose in the National Everglades Park occurred.   For twenty years this creature was largely ignored until, in the year 2000, scientists recognized that it was not only capable of reproducing in the wilds of the park but that they were in fact reproducing.  Since 2000, the Burmese Python population has grown exponentially as have the sightings.  How did this happen?

bumese python

The State of Florida is largely a peninsula bordered by the Gulf of Mexico to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.  It is flush with ship traffic and seaports; and, with ship traffic and seaports comes an influx of foreign goods, including exotic animals.  Miami is a hub for trade in exotic pets in the U.S.  The pythons in the Everglades is a result of not only over-consumption and the desire to own something exotic, but it is also the result of our throwaway habits.

When a possession becomes old, boring or, in the case of the python, too difficult to care for, it gets thrown out.  People who bit off more than they could handle took the easy route and dumped their snakes in the vicinity of the Everglades.  Because of the subtropical weather combined with wetlands, the pythons are not only thriving, but they are threatening to wipe out the animals which are indigenous to the Everglades.   Animals once abundant are slowly becoming scarce.  The raccoon is one of these animals.

Because of the difficulty of inventorying the python population, estimates are not much more than guesstimates.   The python’s nature is very secretive which limits the ability to conduct a traditional tag-recapture calculation.  With the goal being removal, It is counterintuitive to return the pythons to the wild after they are tagged.  The situation is a huge quagmire, thus, estimates are based on speculation.  Consequently, speculations estimate the population to be anywhere from 30,000 to 300,000. Without knowing specifics, the analysis is gut-oriented leading scientists to believe that any and all animals in the park are vulnerable.   Even the fierce alligator is vulnerable.

On a limited basis, radio telemetry studies were conducted.   Radio telemetry includes the use of a small, surgically implanted radio transmitter to track the movement patterns over extended periods of time.  A test conducted in 2014 suggested that the Burmese python may have navigational map and compass senses.  Where another species snake movement is random, the Burmese python movement appears to be non-random.  In fact, five snakes with implanted transmitters were set free 21-36 km from their capture zone.   All the snakes returned to within 5 km of their capture zone.

The classification of the Burmese python species is invasive.  The definition of an invasive species is a species that disrupts the ecosystem by preying on native species.  Because of their large body size and non-native species status, adult Pythons have few predators in Florida apart from alligators and humans.  Another challenge is their high reproductive potential, low age at maturity and longevity of the species.  Although females breed only every two years, their clutches are anywhere between twenty and fifty eggs.  The average life of a female python is twenty years or more.  In addition to the raccoon, other animals have seen a decline in the park.  Opossum, bobcat, rabbit and fox have all declined 88-100% in sightings.  An example of how quickly the python can devastate a species took place when the park reintroduced the marsh rabbit to the Everglades.   The marsh rabbit completely disappeared less than eleven months later.  The primary predator was the Burmese python.

Over the years, many proposals for capture and removal have been made.  None of them have been practical.  However, measures have been taken to control the spread.  In 2012, the U.S. Department of Interior made it illegal to import the Burmese Python to the U.S.  Other laws and regulations have been passed to control the spread of the python to other parts of Florida.

As of today, there is no practical proposal on the table.  Until there is, the ecosystem of the Everglades remains under assault, and the native species in danger of elimination.  It’s a sad commentary on our species and how we’ve behaved toward our environment for far too long.

3 Comments

Filed under Maribeth Shanley, Travel

3 responses to “Extinction of and in the Everglades

  1. Humans are fantastic at ruining natures beauty.
    I found the python section particularly interesting. Maybe they’ll get a taste for humans?! instead of the wildlife that’s getting devoured.

  2. Having lived on both ends of Alligator Alley, I know of what you speak. Are there any Panthers left? There were supposedly 61 when I left FL in “95.

  3. Jonna, today there are fewer than 100 panthers left in the whole of Florida. Most live in the Everglades. That’s the best statistic I can find. Sad!

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