National Park

Ground Zero in the battle against invasive species

Balanced like a statue in the saw grass, the ivory-white heron may have been resting, or perhaps waiting for its next meal to be within sight under its slender paws. Opposite, an anhinga rested on a tree branch, its wings spread to catch the morning breeze and dry itself. From my vantage point on the boardwalk, an alligator silently drifted below through Taylor Slough.

It’s impossible in a few days to truly appreciate and fully understand Everglades National Park, a subtropical wilderness that endured as much of Florida was conquered by efforts to drain the swamp. Most of the park – 1.3 million of the 1.5 million total area – is out of reach of those staying on the park road that connects the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center to Flamingo.

Yet driving this road highlights not only the vast expanses of sawdust prairie and the occasional cypress domes, but more of those snowy white birds – egrets – great blue herons, red-shouldered hawks and other birds that relish the marshes, cypress domes and hardwood hammocks in the park. Birds such as the iconic roseate spoonbills, white ibises, wood storks and dozens more.

While much work and billions of dollars have been spent to restore the natural flow of the “River of Grass” from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay, a rejuvenation that is expected to reap huge benefits for flora and wildlife in the park, battles on the ground continue against invasive predators that have robbed the park of its small mammals and non-native vegetation that has swamped parts of the fascinating sawdust prairie.

Everglades was the final leg of a nearly year-long journey through the National Park Travelers editors and writers to better understand not only the invasion of non-native intruders into the landscapes of the National Park System, but to learn the steps that National Park Service staff and contractors are taking in the battle and the successes that they notice.

the of the traveler coverage has varied from the impacts of feral hogs in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to those of invasive mosquitoes in Haleakalā National Park. We’ve collected stories from tributaries of the Colorado River in the backcountry of Utah’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, as well as upland lakes in Sequoia National Park and even the Great Lakes, where Asian carp threaten to upset the fishery.

But while we were working on this story, the Everglades kept popping up as the poster child for invasive species in the Park System. His collective mix of constraining Burmese pythons; sweeps of Melaleuca and Brazilian peppercorns; the opportunistic black-and-white Argentine tegus, an omnivorous lizard; and the lionfish in its marine world present a seemingly unstoppable invasion.

Feral pigs at Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park / Meredith Boatman

“It’s not just these reptiles that are getting all this attention,” Everglades Superintendent Pedro Ramos told me in April when we sat down behind park headquarters to discuss the myriad issues facing the park. is confronted. “These large snakes give us an opportunity to talk about alien invasions in general. Alien plants here in Everglades National Park, and South Florida in general, as well as in other parts of the country, are also a problem that concerns us a great deal.

“I think it was the perfect storm. It was the perfect storm. It’s a system that, we’re not restoring it just because. It’s a system that we tweaked, we severly tweaked. We we’ve kept these wetlands free from the water they need to function properly,” Ramos explained. “And that has set the stage perfectly for this invasion of animals and plants to happen over the years. “It didn’t happen overnight. It’s happened over the last few decades, and unfortunately we have species like the Burmese python. It’s so established in this environment that our scientists tell us it’s it is highly unlikely that we will ever be able to eradicate them.

But as this project took of the traveler publishers and writers across the country, they found signs of success.

  • At Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, remote-controlled traps are denting the park’s feral pig population.
  • Grand Staircase Escalante Partners teams are making progress in slowing, and in some places reversing, the spread of the invasive Russian olive tree in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
  • Hundreds of non-native mountain goats have been removed from Olympic National Park, and numbers of voracious and invasive lake trout are reduced in Yellowstone Lake.
  • At Haleakalā National Park in Hawaii, there is optimism that a project there could reverse the production of invasive female mosquitoes that transmit avian malaria to the park’s endemic birds, some of which are listed as threatened or endangered.
  • Upland lakes in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have been cleared of non-native trout.

Quagga mussels have infested the waters of Lake Powell at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area/Kurt Repanshek

In some cases, however, a complete victory is unlikely to be achieved. Quagga mussel infestations in Lake Powell and Lake Mead are two examples, and the Everglades are unlikely to be rid of all Burmese pythons one day.

But, as Superintendent Ramos noted, all is not lost.

“The goal is to bring back the water [through the ongoing Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan] and let Mother Nature do her thing and heal,” he told me. “The expectation is that while we know we may never get rid of these big snakes, and maybe other creatures that are already making their home here, we know we can give Mother Nature a fighting chance. to heal and recover.”

It won’t be an easy road to recovery in the national park system, nor an inexpensive one, as Jason Corzine, vice president of the National Park Foundation which focuses on natural resource issues in the system, told us. parks. of the project. The potential cost the park service will incur in working to minimize the impacts of invasive species is unknown. In fiscal year 2020 alone, the agency had a budget of $143 million to address the issue. Whether the total cost over time will eclipse the often-reported $12 billion in overdue maintenance needs in the parks system remains to be seen.

“The problem doesn’t go away,” Corzine said. “It will be a presence within the Park Service. I view each of these parks as a unique type of learning lab, with climate issues in general, invasive species issues in general. I don’t know if they never put pen to paper to say, “This particular problem is costing us X dollars a year in perpetuity. I just don’t know if they approached it that way in a very holistic sense.”

“I think they have the science and the expertise in-house to think about it, but from an overall perspective, I don’t know if they know the real financial impact this has on the parks service and the experience. visitors, eventually,” he said.

Traveler’s Postscript: In the coming weeks, we will end this series with stories and videos from Everglades National Park. In the meantime, you can find previous coverage of the series here:

Traveler’s Special Report: The Invasion of the National Park System

Traveler’s Special Report: Invasive Fish in National Parks

Parks Audio Postcard | Fight the Russian Olive at Glen Canyon NRA

Travelers’ Special Report: Vegetative Invaders in National Parks

Charity dollars help fight invasive species in the national park system

Traveler’s Special Report: The Cost of Invasive Species in the National Parks System

Traveler’s Special Report: Guardians of the Forest

Travelers Special Report: Fighting Invaders with Fire on National Battlegrounds

Travelers Special Report: Measuring Success Against Invasive Species

Parks Traveler Audio Postcards: Hog Wild

Travelers’ Special Report: Invasive Mammals and National Parks

This project was made possible with the support of Cardno, now Stantec, a global environmental consulting and engineering company.