• Snorting feral hogs, which root through sensitive habitats, and 20-foot pythons, which dine on native wildlife
• A sea of lygodium, a fern with fronds that can grow nearly 100 feet long and suffocate cypress trees
• Thick mats of water hyacinth that clog our waters, impacting habitat for fish, flows for flood control and recreational activities.
Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas (CISMAs) are regional partnerships that work to stop the spread of non-native, invasive species that threaten the future of almost half of Florida’s endangered species.
We spoke with Kris Serbesoff-King, who directs the Conservancy’s invasive species efforts in Florida and also represents the organization nationally.
Kris Serbesoff-King directs the Conservancy’s invasive species efforts in Florida.
Who's winning the battle, the invasive species or us?
Sometimes I just don’t know – it depends on which side of the bed I wake up on. Thankfully, our successful CISMA groups keep me optimistic!
But non-native species have invaded all of Florida’s systems – marine, freshwater and terrestrial.
Pythons, hogs – what is Florida's scariest invading species?
The scariest is the one that isn’t here yet. Nobody thought the Burmese python or North African rock python would be a problem, but now most everyone’s scared. And while pythons get the bulk of the press, we are equally concerned about the threat of emerald ash borer entering our state, which has been infesting new areas in other states at an alarming rate. Florida ash trees are at risk, and it just takes moving infested firewood into new areas.
With a more conservative policy approach, Florida could reduce the risk. There’s no formal system to look for invaders, and much isn’t known. A tick was caught that could have devastated the cattle industry. But to your point: What scares me are the invaders that we NOT seeing yet – and not really looking for.
Is the problem particularly bad in Florida?
It’s one of the worst in the country. We’re a major port of entry for non-native plants and animals, and receive the most non-native reptiles. They come in daily, and pests and pathogens ride along. Some Florida guests also bring along familiar species from home.
It’s a perfect storm, with lots of introduced species and many pathways into the environment. Once released, invaders respond well to Florida’s hospitable climate. Not all imported species are invasive, of course. It’s just a small percent that cause the nasty problems, but they damage our economy and our conservation lands and waters.
So CISMAs were created to address these invasions?
Very effectively. All landowners struggle with the threat of invasives, whether they’re impacting a right-of-way, a cattle ranch or a nature preserve. So we brought local, state and federal agencies together with private landowners, universities and nongovernmental agencies. We can deal with these most efficiently and effectively together – that is really the basis of a CISMA.
These CISMAs fall under a statewide partnership which I co-chair, the Florida Invasive Species Partnership (FISP) along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This oversight committee offers help and guidelines to all CISMA partners. FISP also developed an online list of financial and technical assistance for land owners and managers. Many state and federal agencies and non-Governmental organizations are represented on FISP on a cooperative basis; no one gets paid specifically to participate.
What was the Conservancy’s role with CISMAs?
Due to our two decades of invasive species experience and expertise, we got involved early and helped create many of Florida’s 17 CISMAs as well as the statewide system under FISP. Our staff also plays a lead role in 6 of Florida’s CISMAs and I’m the partners’ main contact for all CISMAs; I answer questions and help them communicate. It’s one of the most positive things I do at work and makes me think, “Yes! We can do this.”
It’s interesting – each CISMA partner has a specific mission and slightly different mandate. The Conservancy of course wants to see that invasive species issues are addressed in a manner that benefits nature and people, but we respect our partner’s issues as well. A group is given tools and then works together to determine on-the-ground priorities and how to address them.
What exactly do CISMAs do?
I could say this in my sleep: CISMAs fight invasive species using three main management strategies:
1) Preventing new invasions before they occur whenever possible,
2) Quickly detecting and rapidly responding to new invaders, and
3) Controlling and managing already-established invaders at priority sites.
Every CISMA uses different techniques, but they all work across fence lines and help out their partners. We share best practices and leverage our limited resources. CISMAs also build community awareness, including training and workdays, helping everyone learn more about what to look for and how to control and report an invasive species.
Do you have a good success story?
I have lots of great success stories, ranging from a Department of Defense partner being the key to starting an early response to eradicating Brazilian pepper in the panhandle on private lands to the Florida Keys CISMA starting Python Patrol. The Keys CISMA heard about the python infestation in the Everglades and was determined to stop pythons from spreading to the Keys. An innovative “eyes and ears” campaign, coined Python Patrol, was begun, training postal carriers, utility workers and such to identify and report unusual snake sightings.
This program spread from the Keys CISMA to the mainland, to include 6 additional south Florida CISMAs and was expanded to include responder trainings as well as identification and reporting of other non-native reptiles. UPython Patrol was managed by the Conservancy until 2013 and, as of January 2014, has been transferred to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It is a great success; the Conservancy helped build the program and was able to expand the effort through Florida’s network of CISMAs.
What does your crystal ball say about invasive species in Florida?
The ball’s a little murky, but we know that money won’t fall out of the sky. My personal goal is that the entire state of Florida will be covered by CISMAs and we are almost there. However, we need more than just moral support and bodies – we need financial support and help from the big agencies on priority projects and formalization of the FISP/CISMA network similar to what the Conservancy has built in New York State. So, still lots of work to do, but it’s amazing to me how much the CISMAs and FISP have accomplished in the midst of the economic climate and with little formal authority– it can only get better!
For all the hassle of the Burmese pythons, at least they raised citizen awareness about invasive species and CISMAs. With us it’s not about blame, it’s about action. CISMAs deal on the ground with these very real problems that affect us all. We’re building strong relationships and making great strides, and we’re very grateful for financial support from members of The Nature Conservancy.