From Chinese mitten crabs in Chesapeake Bay to the Coqui tree frog in Hawaii, exotic creatures have overrun America from sea to shining sea.
But no state faces a bigger, scarier threat than Florida — a point made abundantly clear during a Senate hearing Wednesday on the nation's losing battle to slow the spread of invasive species.
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson delivered a vivid show-and-tell to lawmakers, unrolling the skin of a Burmese python killed in Everglades National Park, all 17 feet of it. Then he explained in graphic detail how a pet python half that size strangled a toddler in her crib last week in a town northwest of Orlando.
"It's just a matter of time before one of these snakes gets to a visitor in the Florida Everglades," Nelson told a Senate panel examining an invasive surge that poses increasingly expensive threats to native wildlife, crops, livestock and people.
Gregory Ruiz, a senior scientist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, estimated that exotics already have cost the United States $100 billion a year. He called current efforts to control and eradicate exotic creatures "a patchwork" in need of a major overhaul. It was a view echoed repeatedly during the two-hour hearing in Washington, D.C.
Federal agencies charged with combating the invaders acknowledged they've been overwhelmed by thousands of species, many arriving in the bilge water of sea-going freighters but also coming in as pets, clinging to produce or sneaking in through other pathways.
Nelson, a Democrat from Melbourne who filed a bill to ban Burmese python imports in February, said he had asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to "do something about" the giant constrictors for three years.
"They have not," Nelson said. "They have said they're studying it."
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