A valuable University of Florida program that helps save the state millions of dollars annually in controlling invasive plants and insects will likely close after a veto by Gov. Rick Scott on Monday.
An approved increase by the Legislature of $180,000 was denied, and the facility also lost all funding. The state-of-the-art lab opened in 2004 at the UF/IFAS Indian River Research and Education Center in Fort Pierce with $3.9 million in state funding.
The center will probably close, and 12 positions will be eliminated, said Jack Payne, UF senior vice president for agricultural and natural resources.
The quarantine facility is a highly secure lab where scientists conduct research on biological controls for invasive species. Scientists introduce, evaluate and release biological control agents to try to manage exotic weeds and insect pests in Florida.
Florida has the largest invasive infestations in the nation. Invasive species cost Florida approximately $100 million a year, Payne said. Scientists at the lab helped control the tropical soda apple, an invasive weed, through the release of 250,000 South American beetles. The move saved cattle ranchers about $5.75 million a year, Payne said.
The center was poised to release the first biological control agent against the Brazilian peppertree, which is native to Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. The tree has moved around the world as an ornamental plant, and in Florida, it has infested nearly 700,000 acres in the central and southern regions. It has been particularly abundant in the Everglades.
In general, the trees take over space where native plants should be. Animals such as white-tailed deer, the Florida panther and migratory birds that depend on native vegetation, such as mangrove, for food and shelter are deprived of that habitat.
Biological control is the use of natural enemies, typically insects or diseases, to reduce the numbers of an invasive insect or plant.
UF/IFAS scientists at the quarantine facility work on many other projects, including:
- Trying to establish laboratory colonies of one or more promising insect herbivores that feed on cogongrass, one of the most invasive grasses in the Southeast.
- In collaboration with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they have released more than 350,000 beetles for biological control of the air potato at more than 1,000 locations in Florida since 2012.
Landowners, managers and industry use the UF/IFAS assessments when deciding whether to use non-native species in Florida. FDACS consults the UF/IFAS plant assessment to help shape their regulation of invasive species.
UF/IFAS officials cite the control of alligator weed by three insects from South America, melaleuca by insects from Australia and tropical soda apple by a Brazilian leaf-feeding beetle as other successful biological control programs.
Researchers have imported more than 160 exotic natural enemies to target more than 60 pest insects in classical biological control programs in Florida. About 30 percent of the exotic species have become established following release.
Many insects have been controlled biologically in Florida, including the citrus blackfly by a parasitic wasp from Asia, the Florida red scale by a parasitic wasp from Asia, the sugarcane borer by a parasitic wasp from Asia, the Mexican bean beetle by a parasitic wasp from South America and invasive mole crickets by a parasitic wasp and a parasitic nematode from South America.