Marco Island grapples with invasive green iguanas as they impact structures, wildlife
Holding an extended pole with a noose at the end, Alfredo Fermin gently places it around the neck of a juvenile green iguana that is hiding underneath a residential dock on Marco Island.
The iguana instantly squirms to try to set itself free but in seconds it is already on Fermin's hands and put in a cage with other similar sized iguanas.
"The key is you can't look the iguanas in the eyes," Fermin said.
Fermin traps hundreds every year as part of a plan of the city of Marco Island to control the iguana's population, but he said it is too late to eradicate them completely.
"If you remove five, 10 more are just going to show up," Fermin said.
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Fermin drives to dozens of properties on the island almost every Thursday, spending six to eight hours each day trapping from three to 30 iguanas. They are later euthanized because they cannot be relocated and released in other locations in Florida.
He said nearly 450 properties are registered in the city's iguana removal program and that he can't get to all of them on a single day.
In fiscal 2020, the city spent a little more than $23,000 on the program, trapping 741 green iguanas of all sizes, and in fiscal 2019 it spent $20,000, trapping 634, according to Tonia Selmeski, the city's environmental planner.
For fiscal 2021, the city allocated $20,000 to the iguana removal program, trapping 308 iguanas from Oct. 1, 2020, to April 8, according to data provided by the city. No trapping activities were conducted in three of those weeks.
"There are a lot of factors that will affect how many iguanas Alfredo (Fermin) can remove on any given day – weather, accessibility of iguanas, etc.," Selmeski wrote in an email earlier this month.
Green iguanas are more than a nuisance
Native to Central America, South America and some eastern Caribbean islands, green iguanas are large and typically green but also brown and are considered invasive species in Florida, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's website.
They have a row of spikes in the back and have dark black rings on the tail, according to FWC. Mature males have a "throat fan" that is larger than that of females, and they can grow to more than 5 feet in length and weigh up to 17 pounds. Females can be as long but usually do not weight more than seven pounds and reach reproductive maturity at two to four years of age.
Fermin said green iguanas in Southwest Florida typically mate in December and that female iguanas dig holes or burrows in March and April, laying between 40 and 80 eggs each. He said most of these eggs hatch successfully in June and July.
"Females are laying eggs right now," Fermin said earlier this month.
Green iguanas can live up to 10 years on the ground, in shrubs or in trees in a variety of habitats such as suburbs, cities, small towns and agricultural areas, according to FWC. They are great swimmers, tolerating both saltwater and freshwater, and can stay underwater for up to four consecutive hours.
Fermin said iguanas like to live near the island's tidal canals and that about 95% of the houses registered in the city's program are near the water.
"I do have a couple of houses that are inland. That's when you know it is bad," Fermin said.
At a house on Tarpon Court, which has a system of tunnels built by iguanas, Fermin was unable to catch iguanas with his pole because they hid under the house. Two iguana carcasses could be seen behind the house likely because someone shot them with a pellet gun, Fermin said.
Green iguanas cause damage to landscape vegetation and are often considered a nuisance by property owners, according to FWC. They feed on a wide variety of vegetation such as shoots, leaves, blossoms and fruits of plants such as nickerbean, firebush, jasmine, orchids, roses, Washington fan palms, hibiscuses, garden greens, squashes and melons.
Adult green iguanas can also feed on bird eggs and dead animals, and juveniles eat vegetation, insects and tree snails.
In February, FWC voted for a set of rules that would ban owning or breeding 16 reptiles, including the green iguana, Florida Today reported.
But being the worst nightmare to homeowners and landscapers is not the only negative impact green iguanas can have in a small city like Marco Island. They also can cause considerable damage to structures, such as seawalls and sidewalks, when they dig burrows.
Green iguanas also leave droppings on docks, boats and seawalls across the city, which can transmit salmonella to humans through contact with water or surfaces contaminated by their feces, according to FWC.
Theresa Vitta, a resident on Kendall Drive, said green iguanas poop on her seawall, dock and kayaks and she does not know exactly how to keep them away. There is an empty lot next to her house that is constantly frequented by the iguanas.
"They also dig very bad holes on the seawall, the seawall starts to cave in, so it is very expensive to keep your seawall in good condition," Vitta said.
Vitta stays upbeat, though, saying the only thing she feels she can do is chase the iguanas with a kayak paddle in an effort to scare them, sometimes causing the neighbors to laugh at her expense.
"I actually have to (gently) push them and they go into the water," Vitta said.
Vitta said she supports the city's iguana removal program but would like the program to grow, allowing Fermin to come to Marco Island more than once a week or to allow him to hire another trapper.
"I think it is really important to make sure that the invasive species are not destroying the properties and the property values on Marco Island," Vitta said.
Burrowing owls and gopher tortoises dig burrows to shelter and lay eggs and are considered threatened species in Florida. The burrowing owl nesting season is typically from February to July, and gopher tortoise nesting season is typically from May to July.
"The iguanas appear to be increasing on the island at the highest number that has ever been present," Piersma said April 9. "We are still learning if the owls will abandon all of their burrows due to iguanas, if the iguanas would eat owl eggs, and what can we do to assist in the control of this invasive species."
Piersma also said the city needs more trappers to assist with the control of this invasive species and that Marco Island residents can contract private trapping companies to remove iguanas from their properties.
Will Marco Island ever get rid of all green iguanas?
First reported in Florida in the 1960s in Hialeah, Coral Gables and Key Biscayne, green iguana populations now stretch along the Atlantic Coast in Broward, Martin, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties and along the Gulf Coast in Collier and Lee counties, according to FWC's website.
Christopher Harlow, the city of Marco Island's first iguana trapper from 2008 to 2010, said cities in Southwest Florida will never get rid of all invasive iguanas and other invasive lizards. He works with the city of Sanibel hunting invasive species such as Nile monitor lizards.
"The iguanas aren't going anywhere. They are there to stay," Harlow said.
Marco Island City Councilor Erik Brechnitz said Wednesday he is not prepared to continue spending city funds on an iguana removal program that is seemingly not resolving the problem.
In 2019, Brechnitz was one of two councilors who voted against spending additional money on the program.
"I would like to find a more effective way in dealing with them," Brechnitz said.
FWC does not have a current population estimate for iguanas in Florida, but more than 5,000 green iguanas have been reported in Florida since 2000, according to a database of the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health at the University of Georgia.
"This data is not representative of the population as a whole, but representative of the public who has taken the initiative to report the sighting," Carol Lyn Parrish, public information director with FWC, wrote in an email April 9.
Harlow, who taught Fermin how to hunt iguanas before Fermin started his own business, said iguanas were not causing big problems on Marco Island in the early 2000s.
"It really started kicking in when people started seeing them," Harlow said. "They were on people's docks and seawalls, pooping all over the place."
Harlow said he can hunt 60 to 70 iguanas each day on Sanibel, double the amount that Fermin traps on Marco, because the city of Sanibel allows him to use a pellet gun while the city of Marco Island does not allow Fermin to use one.
He said it is easier to use a pellet gun to hunt iguanas in Sanibel because he hunts them in a wooded area, far away from people's houses.
The city of Sanibel suspended its $40,000-a-year eradication program in March of last year because of COVID-19's impact on its budget, The News-Press in Fort Myers reported. The program was reinstated in September.
Lee County set aside $25,000 in 2019 to combat a growing green iguana problem on the island of Captiva, The News-Press reported.
"I don't blame them (city of Marco Island) because they are looking out for their city, but if they really want to get a hold of the iguanas, you got to use a pellet gun," Harlow said.
Selmeski, the city's environmental planner, said April 12 that the city does not allow their iguana trappers to use pellet guns because of safety concerns.
"We just don't have a lot of space," Selmeski said.
Fermin said he safely uses his pellet gun to hunt green iguanas in other cities like Cape Coral only when he is absolutely sure there are not people nearby or property that could be damaged by a ricochet. He said the most effective way to hunt iguanas is to shoot them in the head.
The first thing Fermin does when he arrives at a property in Cape Coral is to call the non-emergency police line to tell them his name, his location, what he does, what vehicle he is driving and how he is dressed, he said.
He said calling the police before hunting iguanas saved his life when someone called 911 to say there was a man with a gun looking into people's houses, prompting a police response. Officers suspected the 911 caller was referring to Fermin, he said.
"I could have gotten killed," Fermin said.
Fermin also said frustrated and untrained residents many times use cheaper pellet guns, hurting the iguanas instead of killing them and causing them great suffering.
FWC prohibits people from capturing or killing iguanas by using leg-hold or body gripping steel traps or by using gasoline, smoke, poison or other chemicals.
"With the pellet gun that I have, I would never miss," Fermin said.
HOW TO DETER IGUANAS
- Remove plants that act as attractants
- Fill holes to discourage burrowing
- Hang wind chimes or other items that make noises
- Hang CDs that have shiny surfaces
- Spray the animals with water
Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
If you are a resident of the city of Marco Island and would like to register your property in the city's iguana removal program, go to https://www.cityofmarcoisland.com/growth-management/webform/iguana-removal-web-form.