MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) - Sid Pennington has decided to spend his retirement trapping invasive lizards threatening native wildlife in his community.
Pennington, 60, has singlehandedly captured at least 117 Argentine black and white tegus from the woods and neighborhoods in western Fort Pierce where he lives.
In September, after the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission saw how skilled Pennington was at catching nonnative tegus on his own, biologists lent him 20 traps and recruited him as a volunteer. He's caught 31 this year alone.
"I grew up being a big reptile guy," said Pennington, a former employee at the St. Lucie Nuclear Plant. His first catch was a female tegu in 2019, measuring just under 4 feet long. "I don't want them to be here. But it is fun."
Tegu populations spreading in Florida
With sharp teeth and scaly black-and-white splotches, tegus may be spreading faster than biologists can trap them. The state has no definitive population estimate, but residents have reported at least 132 sightings in St. Lucie County through 2021. Sixty percent of those sightings came from Pennington.
The South American lizard's appetite for the eggs of native animals — such as killdeer, alligators and gopher tortoises — and its ability to flourish in cooler environments has prompted a strong response from FWC. If tegus start spreading north, it could wreak havoc on native species already straining from habitat loss and overdevelopment.
This St. Lucie County population likely originated from escapes or releases stemming from the exotic pet trade, according to FWC nonnative biologist Dan Quinn. The species is now successfully breeding in three other Florida counties: Charlotte, Hillsborough and Miami-Dade.
Over 12,000 tegus statewide have been removed from the wild to date.
"They're starting to make a foothold here," Quinn said of Fort Pierce during a news conference off Rock Road Wednesday. "Since 2016, when the first tegu was reported, we've seen an uptick in reports. We think it's possible the population is increasing in this area."
Most sightings have been recorded west of Florida's Turnpike, with a majority of the reports south of Orange Avenue and north of Okeechobee Road, according to the FWC. Sightings have been verified over three miles apart.
There's also been periodic sightings of individual animals in Martin and Indian River counties, which are likely released pets and not part of an established population, Quinn said.
There's strong evidence tegus are affecting native species across Florida. A lizard caught in Charlotte County had gopher tortoise eggs in its stomach. University of Florida researchers in 2014 documented a tegu eating alligator eggs.
In April 2021, the FWC deemed tegus a "high risk" species, and banned owning or breeding them. The remaining tegus in captivity can live out the rest of their life, but any future sales are prohibited.
Tegus are lured to traps by chicken eggs and are then humanely killed, Quinn said.
"The vast majority of sightings (in St. Lucie County) have happened in the last two years," Quinn said.
FWC seeks help from public
When it comes to removing invasive species, state wildlife biologists have their hands full. The FWC has removed thousands of Burmese pythons from the Everglades, overseen a multiyear statewide effort to kill lionfish from Florida waters and actively encourages iguana removal.
Tegus are now the latest animal on the list of problematic species, and the state has spent roughly $1.3 million since 2016 to reduce the population, according to FWC spokesperson Lisa Thompson. A female tegu can lay roughly 35 eggs annually.
As temperatures increase with climate change, cold-blooded invasive species will spread wider and faster. A population of tegus, for instance, has already been recorded in Georgia.
This past week, FWC outreach teams sent 3,800 mailers to St. Lucie County homes near where tegu sightings were documented and placed five informational signs along busy roadways. They've also visited hundreds of houses in the area, distributing brochures that read: "How you can help stop the spread of an invasive lizard."
The goal is to inform the public and encourage documenting verified reports, Quinn said.
"We suspect more people are seeing them and not reporting them," he said.
(© Copyright 2022 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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