They chose endangered Key deer as their first victims in the U.S. in more than 30 years and if they’re not stopped, New World screwworm flies could wipe out other endangered species and livestock.
After a stray dog was found in Homestead last week and parasitic larvae in its body were confirmed as screwworms, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Wednesday sterile screwworm flies would be released in the area starting Friday.
Screwworms have caused the deaths of 134 endangered Key deer found only in the Florida Keys since July. While sterile flies have helped lower the number of fertile flies in the islands, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is calling on state and federal officials to step up the response.
“If we don’t move aggressively to halt the spread of this dangerous pest, the result could be catastrophic for Florida’s wildlife and livestock industry,” Nelson wrote in a Wednesday letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “More than 130 endangered Key deer have already fallen victim to the screwworm. We cannot allow the white-tailed deer population, or the endangered Florida panther, or Florida’s nearly $1 billion beef industry to collapse too.”
There are fewer than 100 Florida panthers left in the wild, according to the National Wildlife Federation, and they are found in Florida’s swamplands such as Everglades National Park and the Big Cypress National Preserve.
The herd of endangered Key deer is now estimated in the upper 700s and more than 80 million sterile flies have been released in the Lower Keys and Marathon since October to eradicate the pests that feed on living tissue inside open wounds.
Screwworm flies lay their eggs in the wounds. The eggs hatch, feed as worms and eventually fall off to pupate in the ground and emerge as adult flies that mate and continue the cycle. Sterile screwworm flies mate with wild flies and create eggs that never hatch.
While the Homestead dog was treated and is doing well, there are still a lot of unknowns about its history and recent locations, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam said.
“Given that Florida’s livestock industry is at stake, this sterile fly release is a precautionary move to ensure we’re doing everything we can to aggressively eradicate the screwworm from Florida,” he said.
Residents and visitors are urged to observe their pets and other animals in the area for any suspicious wounds.
Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219