The greater Everglades ecosystem has long been home to many species of all types. It once encompassed the entire landmass of the south Floridian peninsula, however the natural treasure that it once was is slowly diminishing right before our very eyes. Disrupted water flows and polluted water, habitat reduction, and exotic plant and animal populations have all contributed in tarnishing this natural wonder. The steady degeneration of its ecosystem is reflected in the dwindling animal populations living within. Today, the Everglades are home to more than 67 threatened and endangered species; its natural borders have been reduced by 50 percent.58 In its place now stand urban communities and agricultural districts.
Recently, federal agencies and conservation groups have partnered up in the biggest and most expensive, ongoing restoration effort in history, with the hopes of restoring this beautiful American landscape. The days that big-money developers were able to exploit South Florida’s rich, untapped resources appear to be a thing of the past—for the time being. Beginning in the 1970s, federal agencies approved a series of projects to reestablish protective zones, preservations, and sanctuaries around many areas of South Florida. Federal regulations now prohibit the development and exploitation of South Florida’s protected preservations and natural resources, including the poaching of native wildlife for commercial gain.
But safe havens and wildlife refuge sanctuaries are not the end-all remedies to the problem; they are only a piece of the puzzle. The physical boundaries of a national park do not guarantee a species’ survival.59 During the 1990s, serious environmental rehabilitation took the form of a more direct and focused approach. As a result of contaminated water and declining animal populations, agencies were forced to implement more practical scientific solutions toward the Everglades’ restoration. The areas severely devastated by development would now receive more efficient water flows than ever before. Several endangered species made significant recoveries thanks to innovations in modern science. Biologists are now working closely with park rangers to control invasive and exotic populations of plants and animals. Future plans also call for natural alternatives to treating water, which may reduce mercury and phosphorus toxicity levels by up to 76 percent.58 The impact on the environment could be immediate.
Things are looking up, but we should remain cautious as we move forward. Human population expectancies will bring a whole new set of challenges in the coming decades. Resources will be stretched thin. Demand for real estate is expected to increase; this is a mathematical certainty that cannot be avoided. How will we reconcile and still preserve the environment? That will be a question at the forefront of many discussions in near the future. For now, I remain cautiously optimistic.
Reasons for Concern
Throughout the early twentieth century, men dug up canals to diverge water supplies to cities and populated areas all over South Florida. Coastlines were converted into urban communities and wetlands into agricultural districts, and consequently, many areas of the Everglades began to experience unusually prolonged draughts. The water supply quickly became contaminated with toxic metals due to polluted runoffs from agricultural operations, which had devastating effects on the native wildlife.
Over the years, the gradual reduction of wading bird populations dropped almost 90 percent since the 1930s.61 More than 60 species of plants and animals have become either threatened or endangered as a result of habitat destruction. Now, we’re also starting to see the effects of climate change on coastlines and low-elevation levels. Many tropical orchids and herbs are in danger due to sea level rise, which causes the salinization of groundwater and in the soils above.80 Additionally, exotic plants and animals are wreaking havoc on the environment; approximately 26 percent of all local plants and animals belong to non-native groups.62
Controlling invasive and exotic plant and animal populations has been a real challenge for scientists. South Florida has the highest percentage of exotic animals in North America, many of which were brought here as part of the exotic pet trade.62 The control of invasive and exotic species costs American taxpayers 500 million dollars every year.63
The South Florida climate is ideal for many of exotic creatures. Also, many exotic creatures do not have natural predators to control their numbers, which can have devastating consequences on the ecosystem. Exotic wildlife will compete for food with native predators and can alter the natural order. In this regard, the Burmese python has been particularly harmful. The Burmese python now sits atop the list of apex predator, next to the American alligator. Pythons will prey on birds and mammals of all kinds, including threatened and endangered animals. Since 2000, over 1,000 Burmese pythons have been removed from the wild.64
Every year dozens of exotic pets are picked up roaming the Everglades. Of these, the most common include the African rock python, amethystine python, Nile monitors, and green anaconda. Others like the cane toad were brought to the United States for the biological control of agricultural pests. The cane toad, which has toxic glands capable of killing a predator upon consumption, grows to adulthood very quickly and reproduces at alarming rates. Their numbers are widespread throughout Florida and the southern United States.
Wild boars and black rats were brought onboard ships sailing from Europe during colonization. The wild boar is notoriously territorial. The native Florida panther will prey on wild boar, but at hefty a price. Boars are known to carry 45 different types of infectious diseases, including trichinosis. Trichinosis disease has spread to the critically endangered Florida panther population.47 This disease is easily transmitted from one mammal to another.
Exotic varieties of plants are equally bad, if not worse. Out-of-control vegetation has displaced many native floras. The Australian melaleuca has caused particular damage in the coastal regions. The melaleuca tree was brought to South Florida for the purpose of draining the wet South Florida soil, but this tree is highly flammable, and populations have quadrupled since it was first introduced. The Australian melaleuca can produce millions of seeds at a time and are known to outcompete native vegetation.65 Today, Miami-Dade County and federal agencies are working together in order to eradicate large concentrations of melaleuca in West Miami-Dade. The Brazilian pepper plant and air potato also grow rapidly out of control. The air potato wraps its vine tenaciously around native plants and shades out the plant growing beneath it. Air potato plants can grow up to 8 inches a day.66
List of Most Commonly Known Exotic Plants and Animals in South Florida 63
• Australian melaleuca: Australia
• Old world climbing fern: Africa
• Brazilian pepper: South America
• Australian pine: Australia
• Latherleaf: Asia
• Water orchid: Amazon
• Water cabbage: South America
• Burma reed: Asia
• Air potato: Asia
• Carrotwood: Australia
• Bromeliad beetle: Central America
• Island apple snail: South America
• African snail: Africa
• Cane toad: Asia
• Asiatic clam: Asia
• Sailfin: South America
• Walking catfish: Thailand
• Mayan cichlid: Central America
• Blue tilapia: Africa
• Burmese python: Asia
• Green iguana: Central America
• Nile monitor: Africa
• Monk parakeet: South America
• Common myna: Asia
• Purple swamphen: Africa
• Wild boar: Europe
• Black rat: Europe
A Few Words about the Future of Endangered Species
When humans fiddle with nature, the results are often unfavorable. The impact of hunting, pollution, and urbanization has brought many species to the brink of extinction. The Everglades are home to 14 federally listed endangered species.58
Here is the endangered species list of South Florida, with population estimated in 2011.58
• Florida panther: 120–175
• American crocodile: 2,000
• Hawksbill turtle: unknown
• Green turtle: unknown
• Wood stork: 500 pairs
• Snail kite: 200–400 pairs
• Key Largo cotton mouse: unknown
• Key Largo woodrat: 6,500
• West Indian manatee: 2,500
• Schaus swallowtail butterfly: 1,200
• Atlantic ridley turtle: unknown
• Leatherback turtle: unknown
• Red-cockaded woodpecker: unknown
• Cape sable seaside sparrow: 3,000–4,000
We humans have a questionable track record in our dealings with the environment. Fortunately, sometimes we manage to get it right. Recent studies show that complete restoration of Florida’s Everglades could take approximately 30 years and 7.8 billion dollars.60 There’s a lot of work to be done—but the damage is not irreversible. Together, through conservation and public awareness, we may be able to correct many of these unfortunate trends. Today, it is not enough to just appreciate nature—we have to actively work to protect it.