Tag Archives: invasive species

There’s A lot More to it Than Mowing…

It may seem like a small thing, but it’s actually a big thing. How does the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) manage mowing responsibilities for the Central and South Florida Project?

The Central and South Florida (C&SF) Project, first authorized by Congress in 1948, is a multi-purpose project that provides flood control, water supply for municipal, industrial, and agricultural uses, prevention of saltwater intrusion, water supply for Everglades National Park, and protection of fish and wildlife resources. The primary system includes more than 1,000 miles each of levees and canals, 150 water control structures, and 16 major pump stations.

~The ACOE built this system and the SFWMD was created to manage it. 

-S-308, C-44, & S-153 in Martin County are part of the vast Central and South Florida ProjectIn December 2020, item 19 of the SFWMD Consent Agenda read:

“Maintenance of District Lands is required to ensure that vegetation is controlled at the appropriate height to provide for optimal performance and operational efficiency of the District’s flood control system.”

I had inquired. I had questioned…

I had visions of the District mowing down every blade of grass. I asked what was done for the ecology? “Does the District leave any flowering weeds for bees or butterflies?” “Does the the District think about vegetation for the wildlife or do we just mow it all down in the name of flood control?” 

I figured it would be the later…I was wrong. 

On January 28, 2021, I got the tour of a lifetime and learned that there was more to it than mowing. A lot more.I met the heads of departments at DuPuis Wildlife Management Area near Indiantown in Martin County. The goal of my tour was to visit levees and canals and learn about SFWMD mowing practices. Photo: South Florida Florida Management Leadership, L-R back to front: Francois Laroche, Vegetation Mgt. Section Administrator; Rich Virgil, Field Ops. Division Director; Rory Feeney, Land Resources Bureau Chief; Chris Edelstein, Field Ops. Bureau Chief; LeRoy Rodger, Invasive Species Unit Lead; and me, JTL, SFWMD Governing Board.

I.

First we drove to the C-44 canal near S-308, an area I know well. The S-308 structure allows the Army Corp of Engineers to discharge water from Lake Okeechobee into the St Lucie River. The C-44 was first constructed from ca. 1913 to 1923 and over the years widened and “improved.” This repetitive disruption of the soil allows invasive plants to move in each time.

I did not realize the extent until SFWMD’s LeRoy Rodgers, Invasive Species Unit Lead,  and Francois Laroche, Vegetation Management Specialist, told me the story and showed me the back side of the C-44 canal near S-308. 

NAPIER GRASS: Introduced as a forage grass for cattle in the early 1900s; this African grass is extremely invasive.  It grows best along disturbed canal edges eventually hindering flood control by blocking access to canals and impeding water flow. It has been here for decades.Over the years, C-44  levees near S-308  have become covered with Napier Grass also known as “Elephant Grass.”

-Canal C-44 at S-308 coved in Napier Grass -Rory Feeney, Land Resources Bureau Chief,  tugs on a Napier plant. ~The Rhizome structure makes the grass very difficult to “just pull out.”The tall grass is mowed intermittently on a schedule. The roots go wide and deep into the ground making it impossible to pull out without compromising the integrity of the Central and South Florida Project at C-44. All that can be done is to manage this explosion of grass. 

I looked around. The tall Napier Grass reached as far as my eye could see. I thought about history. I though about time. I thought about responsibility. I asked if there were any benefits for wildlife. 

LeRoyRodgers, Invasive Species Unit Lead answered. He said certainly, animals could hide there, but it was not a preferred habitat except for one, another invasive, the Burmese Python. He noted that when the SFWMD mowing crews started finding chopped-up python down in Homestead, a few years ago, that was when the District became aware of the python population issue down there.

Not a good visual…

The men compared areas showing me how the grass does respond to more frequent mowing. They explained how when it is mowed, some is cut short, some is left long and some is cut more often than other.

Closest to the road, where it can be mowed more frequently, I could see other plants and weeds not just Nadier Grasses coming in.  Weed-like flowers bloomed here and there. Francois Laroche, Vegetation Management Specialist explained the ways of nature. With the more frequent mowing, other plants could “compete.”

I started to get the picture…

-LeRory Rodgers, Invasive Species Unit Lead, points to other plants coming in when Napier Grass is more frequently mowed along flat areas.

II.

Next, we drove just a bit further to the intersection of the C-44 and the  S-153 Structure. This structure controls the water inside a canal parallel to Highway 98 and the FPL cooling pond.  It was explained to me that this levee is a second line of defense should the waters of Lake Okeechobee pour over. A levee holds water back and a canal moves water. We were here to look at the levee. However, keep in mind, there is a “canal” where dirt is dug to build a levee…-S-153 intersects with C-44 canal; it is an area full of wildlife and displays both native and non-native plants along the canal used to build the levee.

-LeRoy Rodgers & Rich Vigil observe a fern; this one is not native, used in landscaping yards. -S-153 at C-44 canal Looking around I was happy to see more flowering weeds and plants, and less invasive Napier Grass. This wasn’t the “flowering prairie” I had hoped for, but after my lesson on invasives, I was a bit more open minded. As I looked around, small birds darted away, quickly taking cover. A fish jumped close to a mass of dollar weeds that were wedged up against a floating rope. Some wildlife lives here! 

I was starting to consider the balance.  Where there was mowing, there were more flowering weeds and other plants. As Francois had said, mowing allowed competition.  

To answer my question about plants for pollinators, we found numerous native Spanish Needles. These native blooms are highly visited by a range of pollinators and butterflies. There were others I did not recognize flowering as well. I saw a yellow butterfly, maybe a sulphur. Dragonflies were everywhere. I could hear insects chirping. 

Mr LeRoy and the others picked flowers saying the names in Latin. We discussed the various vegetation, some native, some not, along the levee. It was a mix.

We kept walking.

“O.K. there’s ding,” said Chris Edelstein, Field Ops Bureau Cheif.

“What’s a ding?” I inquired. 

“Something the Army Corp would mark against us. See the dug out areas? That’s from wild hogs foraging for roots and worms.” LeRoy said the name of the long roots left behind in Latin. “This agressive digging is problematic to the integrity of the levee.”

“A ding!” I replied, noting the District’s legal obligation to the Army Corp. of Engineers.

“At least there’s life here,” I repeated. “And I do adore those little piglets!” 

We continued looking at plants and weeds. “Oh and here is another ding,” said Chris. 

I looked up seeing nothing more than a pile of sand.

Rich Virgil, Field Ops Division Director  explained: “That’s a gopher tortoise  burrow…their burrows can be over 15 feet long and 6 feet deep. This can definitely be an issue for the integrity of the levee.” 

I thought about the possibility of a hurricane and Lake Okeechobee overtaking its dike,  the waters pouring east towards the levee. As the men had explained, this levee would be a line of defense. 

I got down on the ground, and took a picture. The men talked. It sounded that a threatened gopher tortoise was not as easy to remove as the wild hogs.

The area was very interesting and definitely more wildlife friendly than our first stop. The mowing pattern again showed some vegetation left alone, some mowed shorter, and wild plants growing along the edge of the canal. The edge of the canal is mowed most infrequently by a special contractor when the plants get “too woody.” Otherwise it is left to grow….

I was somewhat impressed. 

-Gopher Tortoise burrow in the levee -Edge of canal connected to S-153 displays ferns and other plants, many flowering. I did see a few clumps of the invasive Nadier Grass, but not much.

III.

Last but not least, we drove to Lakeside Ranch, a Storm Water Treatment Area (STA) for nutrient reduction near Taylor Creek, northeast of Lake Okeechobee. In this area the levees of the STA were only a couple of years old; flowering weeds and “good” plants totally outnumbered the small clumps of Nadier Grass. The men talked about the importance of staying on top of the mowing so the Nadeir Grass and other invasive plants wouldn’t take over this area that is now habitat to an extensive number of birds and other wildlife.

“You have to stay on top of it.” Rich said looking from horizon to horizon. 

The place was beautiful. As we continued down the path, I laughed out loud at seeing a pile of apple snails, the trash midden of Snail Kites. Rory Feeney, Land Resources Bureau Chief, explained: “You can tell by the shape that these snails are not native, some can become  invasive, but for the endangered snail kite, it’s been a life saver. The native Florida apple snail lives in a very limited habitat, whereas the invasive  species tolerate more diverse conditions, including human-made impoundments.”  

Wow. An invasive apple snail as a life-saver? The metaphor hit me hard. Non-native species are not always a bad thing, I guess. 

 And mowing?

I’m not as judgmental as I was before the field trip. There’s a lot more to it than just mowing!

-Staring down at piles of invasive apple snail shells left by endangered Snail Kites-I hold an empty, non-native, invasive apple snail shell, the snails that helps the Snail Kite survive in a changing Everglades environment. If only the invasive Nadier Grass could do so much good!

*Thank you to staff! 

Backyard Pythons? SLR/IRL

Skilled hunters, Burmese Pythons are one of the five largest species of snakes in the world and native to South and Southeast Asia. They are a threatened species in their native lands, but today there are breeding populations in a new environment, the Florida Everglades.  Image public domain.

I have this dream that I am enjoying walking around in my garden,  I look down, and there is a seventeen-foot python curled up under my house. Sounds ridiculous, but one day this may not be that far fetched.

This past week, the Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC) https://myfwc.com held their meeting at the Hutchinson Island Marriott, just over the Ernest Lyons Bridge from Sewall’s Point. One of the things they discussed was the overpopulation of Burmese Pythons that are ravaging native wildlife in Everglades National Park and other parts of South Florida.

I have been vaguely aware of this for years. My previous Sewall’s Point neighbor was a python enthusiast. Around 2012, he wrote TCPalm a letter to the editor in the python’s defense arguing that the Burmese Python did not bring itself to South Florida, people did! According to FWC pet pythons have been released since the 1960s but it was after Hurricane Andrew’s 1992 destruction that a breeding facility was destroyed, pythons escaped, the population exploded, and a breeding community arose.

I do believe “in all God’s Creatures,” but this is a nightmare-dynamic for Florida’s native wildlife. Public speakers noted Everglades National Park is “devoid of small mammals.” This is not an exaggeration, perhaps down 98%, and “small mammals” are not just what’s for dinner. Meals also include birds, eggs, bobcats, deer, alligators and who knows what else. Mr. Kipp Frohlich of FWC estimates a range from tens-of-thousands to over three-hundred-thousand snakes could be living in the Everglades. We really don’t know. One was even found in Florida Bay all curled up on a buoy. Oh yes, they can swim.

If I were a python and my friends and I  had eaten everything down south, what would I do? I’d slither north…

Opossums, armadillos, and families of raccoons visit my yard a few times a week. ~For now…

python-snake, public image

 

Please see links to learn about what is being done to controll and educate ourselves on the python:

FWC Presentation

Division: Habitat and Species Conservation
Authors: Sarah Funck, Kristen Sommers, and Melissa Miller, Ph.D. Report date: July 2019

Click to access 10b-presentation-python.pdf

 

Smithsonian article shared by SFWMD:  Snake Landia_Smithsonian Article_07-2019

*Florida still allows breeders of Burmese Pythons in Florida, but they can only sell the animals outside of the state. All things considered, at the meeting, FWC Commissioner Gary Lester questioning the wisdom in this. I agree. Considering this is how pythons got out of control in the first place.

The Florida Channel videos of FWC meetings in Hutchinson Island; pythons: day 2:

https://thefloridachannel.org/videos/7-17-19-florida-fish-wildlife-conservation-commission-part-2/

https://thefloridachannel.org/videos/7-18-19-florida-fish-wildlife-conservation-commission/

Piranha, Pacu, Invasive Species, the Future of Lake Okeechobee and the SLR/IRL

Mouth of a pacu fish with very human like teeth. Yikes! :) Public photo.
Mouth of a pacu fish with very human like teeth. Yikes! 🙂 These fish are reported to be in Lake O. Public photo.

Just the other day, one of my readers sent me a funny but educational video on Lake Okeechobee and the continued sightings of Pacu fish. Pacu Fish are related to Piranhas and both fish live in the Amazon River of South America. Both have TEETH.

Since my husband pulls out wisdom teeth and replaces teeth with implants,  teeth are often a topic of discussion for us, even at the dinner table….when we first met, he told me my teeth were great, except my “lateral incisors were too prominent…..:) —-the vampire teeth! 🙂 I was not happy…:)

Me holding up a fried piranha Ed and I caught recently on a trip to Peru.  (Photo Ed Lippisch 2015.)
Me holding up a fried piranha Ed and I caught recently on a trip to Peru. (Photo Ed Lippisch 2015.)

Anyway. Today’s blog post is meant to be fun but serious.

Invasive species are forever changing South Florida. Between pythons in the Everglades, Lion Fish in the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon, Cuban Tree Frogs as well as Bufo Frogs in Sewall’s Point, and Pacu Fish with their “human like teeth” in the Lake Okeechobee—that of course is periodically dumped into our rivers—our world is changing. Native species are being replaced and overwhelmed.

In their 5th Biennial Review of Progress in the Everglades or lack thereof,  the National Reasearch Council noted Invasive Species as a top concern for Everglades Restoration.

I read about all this and get upset at the invasive species problem…then it dawns on me that some may say “we, modern man, in South Florida, are an invasive species too.”

Food for thought anyway….

Thank you to Ricardo Zambrano and Kelly Gestring of the Florida Wildlife Commission for replying to my question about PACU and Lake Okeechobee as seen below:

Pacu fish in an aquarium. Related to a piranha that looks somewhat similar but has sharp teeth. Public photo.
Pacu fish in an aquarium. Related to a piranha that looks somewhat similar but has sharp teeth. People have released them into Lake O. Public photo.

Dear Commissioner Thurlow-Lippish,

To the best of my knowledge, this report of a singleton pacu being caught by a commercial fisherman in Lake Okeechobee is true. The reporter contacted several FWC people and I was asked to confirm the identity of the fish.

We receive numerous reports every year of singleton pacu being caught (primarily in HOA ponds) every year from locations around the state. However, there is no indication that pacu are reproducing in any of our waterbodies. This strongly suggests that the illegal releases of pacu are by owners who no longer want their pet.

Pacu are primarily herbivores and pose little threat to native species. Anglers should be careful removing the hook as pacu’s have very strong jaws and their molar-shaped teeth could inflict a lot of damage to a finger.

We encourage anglers that catch a pacu to remove them to reduce any potential impacts they may have on the environment.

Thank you for your concern and if you have additional questions, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Kelly Gestring

Non-Native Fish and Wildlife Program
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
10216 Lee Road
Boynton Beach, FL 33473
(561) 292-6007 office
(561) 234-9925 cell
kelly.gestring@myfwc.com

Pacu: (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacu)

WESH piece with video about Pacu sent by blog reader: (http://www.wesh.com/video/vuz/invasive-fish-with-humanlike-teeth-found-in-florida-lake/34337634?src=app)