Iquanas return to Turtle Beach Park

"iggy" and a friend have made themselves at home at Turtle Beach Park. Photos by Tatiana Staats.

Each year on St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), as legend has it, the swallows return to the mission of San Juan Capistrano in California to nest and raise their young.  Around the same time this year, the iguanas returned to Turtle Beach Park on Siesta Key to nest and raise their young.

In early February, owners at Bay Tree Club condominium on south Siesta Key noticed a solitary black spiny-tailed iguana making its home in the Turtle Beach Park dunes.  More iguanas appeared subsequently.

Bay Tree Club owners wanted “Iggy the Iguana” gone. The iguana’s burrow is a few yards into county land from the condo complex’s barbeque deck. As Sarasota County Government is responsible for removing iguanas and other exotic reptiles from county land, the Bay Tree owners contacted Conservation & Environmental Permitting, a division of Sarasota County’s Department of Natural Resources.

Sarasota County employees Chance Steed and Lynda Eppinger survey the situation at Turtle Beach Park.

Chance Steed, a county environmental specialist, and Lynda Eppinger of the Parks and Recreation Department collectively made several inspections of Iggy’s burrow. Their efforts have met with initial success. On April 20, Steed successfully trapped and removed one of the iguanas. Earlier in April, two other iguanas wandered onto nearby private land and were killed by the property owners.

Iguanas destroy native Florida wildlife. They eat the eggs and hatchlings of endangered gopher tortoises and sea turtles, as well as protected shore birds. They will also devour expensive landscaping plants.

Furthermore, Iguana waste may contain salmonella, and, given the toxic load in their mouths, their bites and scratches can be harmful to humans and potentially lethal to small house pets.

Sarasota County regards the iguana threat as serious. In 2009, it developed an Exotic Reptile Management Plan that designated Turtle Beach Park a “priority management site.” In January 2010, the County Commission allocated $50,000 to implement the plan.

Licensed professional trappers under contract to the county are responsible for the majority of iguana removal activities.  Professional trappers have access to a wider range of removal options than do county employees, who are restricted to employing only “humane removal” methods (e.g., snares), which are sometimes effective.

Professional trappers, on the other hand, may use pellet guns and .22-caliber rifles firing birdshot, depending on their contract terms, to dispatch iguanas.

During 2009, 158 iguanas were removed from county lands.  Another 65 and 67 iguanas were removed in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Thus far in 2012, just five iguanas have been removed, according to county documentation. This year the county has no professional trapper under contract.

Sarasota County is implementing changes to its contracting policies and procedures in the wake of last year’s contracting scandal, in which Rodney Jones, a county utilities contract manager, pleaded guilty to three felony counts of receiving bribes and kickbacks. Sarasota County Administrator Jim Ley resigned as a result of the scandal.

A total of 151 separate reforms in seven separate functional areas were recommended to the county’s Department of Procurement and Purchasing by the National Institute of Government Purchasing, the independent auditor engaged by the county to fix a “broken system.” Some people interviewed in connection with this article said they believe that an overly cautious approach to implementing these reforms has effectively stalled the contracting process.

Others do not. Amy Meese, the general manager of Sarasota County’s Department of Natural Resources, said that the county typically engages the services of professional trappers to handle the removal of large, breeding colonies of iguanas; smaller iguana populations, such as that at Bay Tree Club, can be removed cost-effectively by county employees.

All county departments are impacted by the procurement and purchasing reforms, Meese noted, but the reforms would not prevent her department from contracting with professional trappers should a need arise. In addition, specific provision to contract with professional iguana trappers has been included in the county’s Fiscal Year 2013 departmental budget.

In the meantime, Iggy has found a mate and is starting a family, a big family.