Workshop Sparks Debate on Dangers of Burmese Pythons

By on March 4th, 2015 | Last updated: March 4, 2015 at 4:40 pm
A Burmese python...Photo Courtesy of Liz Barraco, FWC

A Burmese python is a major, non-native predator in the Florida Everglades. The python is native to southern Asia and have been in Florida since 1863, according to biological scientist Kenneth Krysko. More than 80 percent of this species came through the pet trade. Photo Courtesy of Liz Barraco

Florida wildlife officials have boosted their efforts against Burmese pythons by inviting the public to join the fight, but some researchers and breeders disagree on the severity of the python problem.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) began free Python Patrol workshops in January to train civilians on how to identify, report and safely capture Burmese pythons, a major non-native predator in the Florida Everglades.

The workshops are designed to help manage the reptile population by increasing the number of people that can correctly identify the python and report it.

“That’s our best tool,” said Liz Barraco, a spokesperson for the FWC.

The FWC Burmese python management effort relies heavily on early detection, she said. Wildlife officials have a better chance to remove the python before it settles in if a python is spotted in a new area and immediately reported.

But some people believe the Burmese python is not as big of a threat to the Everglades and Florida as it is made out to be.

“This horse has been beat so many times,” said Eugene Bessette, commercial snake breeder and owner of Ophiological Services, a snake farm on Archer Road.

Even though Burmese pythons are not indigenous to South Florida, Bessette said he feels they are ultimately not an ecological problem.

“Ignorance is the biggest problem,” Bessette said. “People form opinions before they get the facts.”

Bessette lost a substantial part of his business when new regulations put in place in 2012 banned the importation and interstate transportation of Burmese pythons and three other constrictor snakes.

Burmese pythons were Bessette’s primary source of income at the time of the new regulation. After the regulation passed, he had to sell all of his existing inventory of Burmese pythons, stop breeding and change his business plan to focus on other snakes.

“I had to kill my sacred cow,” he said.

Bessette thinks Burmese pythons should not be in the Everglades, but believes they will eventually fit into the area food chain.

“Burms are here to stay,” he said.

Not everyone agrees with this theory.

About 150 non-indigenous amphibians and reptiles have found their way to Florida, with seven new species introduced in 2011according to a 2012 study published by Kenneth Krysko, a senior biological scientist in the Division of Herpetology at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

He said it is impossible to know if the ecosystem will balance out. If a balance does occur, it is speculative to predict when it will happen or what it will look like.

Krysko said wherever the Burmese pythons go, they will likely cause the same damage to other native ecosystems and wildlife that they have caused in southern Florida.

Damage directly caused by pythons is largely inflicted on other native wildlife including rabbit, fowl and other small animal populations, according to Krysko.

More regulations and prevention efforts are necessary in order to do what’s best for the environment and the native wildlife, he said.

Bessette said he wants people to educate themselves on all the environmental issues that involve the Everglades so regulation, legislation, money and effort will be spent in the most effective way to address the wildlife conservation needs as a whole.

“People are the problem,” Bessette said. “People are the solution.”

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In The News: Sen. Marco Rubio Proposes Reduction In Corporate Taxes, Jacksonville Sheriff Candidates Suggest Changes to Police Force, Volusia Man Shot In Face By SWAT Team Member Dies, Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson Will Not Be Charged

By on March 4th, 2015 | Last updated: March 4, 2015 at 4:29 pm
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App To Help With Downtown Ocala’s Crowded Parking

By on March 4th, 2015 | Last updated: March 4, 2015 at 10:01 am

Parking isn’t found often in downtown Ocala. Unlike many downtown areas, Ocala doesn’t have a parking garage, so many drivers find themselves circling the Ocala Square multiple times before finding a spot.

A new app called Parker aims to change that with a network of 190 sensors.

City employees worked through Monday night into the early morning hours to install a sensor into each of the parking spots downtown, including reserved, metered and free-two hour spaces.

The sensors, described as hockey-puck-looking objects, network with each other to send data to repeaters, which are tiny black boxes attached to light poles.

One of the 190 parking sensors installed that uses heat, light and magnetics to detect cars.

One of the 190 parking sensors installed that uses heat, light and magnetics to detect cars. Danielle Prinz / WUFT News

When a spot becomes available, the information is sent to the central gateway, which then returns the signal to the mobile app.

This process takes place 25,000 to 50,000 times per minute.

Chip Rich, community improvement administrator for the City of Ocala, came up with the idea to implement Parker, which is normally used in densely populated areas such as Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.

“(Ocala) is not like many other large metropolitan cities,” Rich said. “Parking is more of a premium in a compact area in my mind. So although it’s nice to have this in other larger areas, I think it’s a perfect fit for our area.”

People shopping at boutiques and dining at the Square will no longer have to search for parking.

Instead, they will type the address of their destination into Parker and let the app tell them verbally where to turn for nearby parking. The app will then save the selected parking spot location to help drivers find their car if they forget where it is parked.

The entire project has been in the making for three years and cost the city of Ocala $38,000. This is cheaper than building a parking garage, which is what some residents were hoping for.

City of Ocala public information officer Jeannine Robbins said, “The goal of this project is to raise parking awareness.”

The project isn’t meant to fix what some residents think is a “lack of parking” problem but rather navigate drivers toward spots that already exist.

Rich thinks there is enough parking and hopes the app will help residents learn about parking patterns, durations and availability — while also acting as a 24/7 study to assist the city with future parking decisions.

Similar studies that record the same data over an extended period of time use human labor, which would cost significantly more than $38,000.

Rich sees this technology as another way Ocala can continue leading the way in innovation.

He recalled, “In 1995, we [the City of Ocala] installed the first fiber-optic network, so we try to lead in innovation and implementation.”

Last year, Ocala was among the first cities in north central Florida to begin paying for metered parking through another app known as Passport, which is now linked through Parker.

The app is set to go live by mid-March, but it is available for download now.

Other cities in the area, including Gainesville, never seriously considered implementing Parker, when mentioned in the past, because of the price tag, according to marketing and communications supervisor Chip Skinner.

Rich said he is hopeful the city will expand its use of the sensors in the future.

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Dog Supports Owner With Chronic Illness

By on March 3rd, 2015 | Last updated: March 4, 2015 at 2:28 pm
Justice 3

Fallin Turner, 17, volunteers at PetSmart’s adoption days on Feb. 7, with her dog Justice. Justice serves as a support dog for Turner, who is dealing with chronic illness. Nakaela Feagin-Hooks/WUFT News

Service dogs are commonly trained to assist people who already have a disability or illness. The ability to detect illness, however, is much more rare.

“You can train a dog to take on the cues Justice has, but most dogs have to be trained,” Fallin Turner, a 17-year old volunteer with Animal People, Inc., said.

Justice, a great dane, was rescued from a woman who had place an ad on Craigslist. The dog was found abandoned at four months, according to Fallin. The ad explained that in exchange for dog food, the woman would relinquish the animal.

This gentle giant, who is still a puppy at a year and a half, has the capability to detect distress and illnesses in humans and animals, according to Fallin.

Fallin has scleroderma and systemic juvenile idiopathic arthritis, both autoimmune diseases. She also suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Symptoms of scleroderma include hardening of the skin, numbness in fingers or toes and emotional distress, according to the Mayo Clinic. Fallin said symptoms are typically only active in the body for eight years, but she has not yet experienced relief.

“At 13, her life shifted so much, and over almost five years now,” said Wendy Turner, vice president on the board of directors for Animal People Inc., and Fallin’s mother. “I’ve watched my beautiful, strong child be strong in other ways that I wish she shouldn’t have ever known.”

If Fallin started to fall, all she had to do was call Justice’s name, and he would act as a support. The canine would even help her by nudging spots, like her hip or shoulder, where she experienced pain.

“He nudged me whenever I got dizzy,” Fallin said.  “He would take his nose and poke me.”

The year Fallin and her mother came on board with Animal People, Inc., they worked with service dogs every Saturday. A year later, Justice unexpectedly became part of the Turner’s life.

“There was no way we could know that there would be a service dog in our future,” Wendy said. “It is fate or God’s plan. I can see very clearly where he steered her and me.”

Fallin currently volunteers with PetSmart Adoptions Days every week, helping people find rescue dogs that are suitable for them, just as the great dane is for her. Justice always accompanies her.

“I tell people if I go to college, he is coming with me because he is my emotional support animal and anxiety attacks leave me pretty down,” she said.

Fallin intends to get Justice certified before she goes to college, in the hopes that she will not miss any more schooling with him by her side.

Because of the American Disabilities Act (ADA), Wendy feels more at ease about her daughter deciding to move out for college one day.

“Luckily the ADA protects her in so many beautiful ways that she will never have to explain anything to anyone,” Wendy said. “Not many laws give people that much freedom without explanation, without fighting, without having to struggle.”

The act, passed in 1990, stops discrimination and allows for people with disabilities to have the same opportunities as their peers, according to the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. 

Fallin plans to attend Santa Fe Community College, and transfer to the University of Florida later. The University Environmental Health and Safety page references the ADA, and its allowance of those with disabilities to use service animals. 

Kenneth J. Osfield, EdD., is the policy director for the UF ADA Compliance Office. The compliance office makes it easier for students to have their service animals on campus without feeling pressured to answer questions, according to Dr. Osfield.

The university understands that students, and even faculty, have needs that an animal can provide, says Osfield. The compliance office seeks to interpret and protect their rights.

“Her life’s been enough of a struggle,” Wendy said. “To know now that we’ve taken a part of that away — that she can go anywhere and do anything everybody else can do pretty much — because she has this big beautiful boy [Justice] by her is wonderful.”

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Scott Highlights Florida’s History As He Talks Of Its Future

By on March 3rd, 2015 | Last updated: March 3, 2015 at 12:12 pm

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Gov. Rick Scott gave a State of the State speech Tuesday that was as much a Florida history lesson as it was a vision for the state’s future — telling lawmakers he wants more tax cuts, more money for education and more affordable college tuition.

Scott recalled some of the major achievements that helped Florida grow to become the nation’s third largest state. That included Dr. John Gorrie’s work in the 1800s that led to air conditioning, the railroads and hotels Henry Flagler built more than 100 years ago, the founding of the Publix supermarket chain in the Great Depression, and the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971.

“Florida has long been a place where dreams come true. But, this is not just our past — it is our future. We have to ask ourselves who has the next big dream for Florida? Who are the inventors? The builders? The trailblazers? We want more people to chase their dreams in Florida,” Scott said.

Scott listed his priorities for the year to achieve that goal. That included permanently ending the sales tax on manufacturing equipment, cutting a tax on cell phones and television services, boosting school spending, and making college more affordable.

“Let us never again say that, ‘We have to raise tuition because tuition in other states is higher than ours.’ We don’t raise taxes when other states have taxes higher than ours, and we shouldn’t raise tuition when other states have higher tuition,” Scott said.

Scott also urged lawmakers to spend more on the environment, pointing out his recommendation to spend $3 billion on environmental and agriculture programs. He said that to compete with the rest of the world Florida needs to remain beautiful.

“Florida is an exceptional place — we have the economy and the opportunity to keep it that way,” he said.

Scott also said the state’s economy is thriving and noted that unemployment has been cut in half since he took office four years ago. He noted that Florida has the fewest state workers per capita than any state in the country.

“I believe that our rich history is only a glimpse of what we can do in the future. Everything is possible in Florida. We are now in the lead, and it’s ours to lose. We have to avoid any temptation to stand down or rest on our laurels,” Scott concluded.

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Governor Scott State Of The State Address

By on March 3rd, 2015 | Last updated: March 3, 2015 at 12:02 pm
Live Blog Governor Scott State of the State Address

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In the News: Community School Closing, Gambling May Expand, UF Tickets Via Text, Clinton Withholds Government Emails

By on March 3rd, 2015 | Last updated: March 3, 2015 at 10:24 am
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New Funds Help UF/IFAS Fight Citrus Greening In Central Florida

By on March 2nd, 2015 | Last updated: March 2, 2015 at 1:35 pm
Small lopsided fruit from greening-infected citrus tree. Photo courtesy of UF/IFAS.

Small lopsided fruit from greening-infected citrus tree. Photo courtesy of UF/IFAS.

The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences received funds to help find a cure for one of the Florida citrus’ most costly pests.

Researchers at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) were awarded about $13.4 million last month as part of the federal Specialty Crop Initiative Citrus Disease Research and Education (CDRE) program. The money will help fund four research projects to find a solution to citrus greening.

Huanglongbing, commonly referred to as citrus greening disease or HLB, was discovered among Florida’s citrus trees in 2005. The disease causes citrus to remain green when bacteria from the saliva of an exotic insect, the Asian citrus psyllid, blocks the flow of nutrients between the roots and leaves of a tree through the plant’s circulatory system, according to the UF/IFAS site.

Citrus greening has caused a total loss of about $4.5 billion in revenue and 8,800 jobs in Florida’s citrus industry between 2006 and 2010, as reported by UF/IFAS. Florida’s citrus industry accounts for $10.8 billion annually, with a large portion coming from Central Florida, said Andrew Meadows, director of communications for Florida Citrus Mutual, an association that helps Florida citrus growers sell their products.

The funding received from CDRE will be applied to the following research projects:

  • developing a spray that can be applied to affected crops and either eliminate or reduce the infectious bacteria
  • using steam-generated treatments to reduce the effects of the disease
  • creating a microbial treatment to cure affected plans
  • breeding crops that are genetically resistant to citrus greening

The diversity of the projects offers a better opportunity for the industry to thrive until a cure is found, said Jack Payne, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida.

UF/IFAS began researching a cure for citrus greening in 2005, but the speed of the spreading disease on commercial land and the federal government’s refusal to fund the research led to a major decrease in size of Florida’s citrus groves, Payne said.

One of the four projects funded by the grants is aimed at using genetics to see how the citrus plants respond to the bacteria. The research team hopes to discover how to create a new breed of plants resistant to citrus greening, said Fred Gmitter, horticultural researcher at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, Florida.

A citrus tree sapling hosts the Asian citrus psyllid, which spreads citrus greening disease through a bacteria it carries. Photo courtesy of UF/IFAS.

A citrus tree sapling hosts the Asian citrus psyllid, which spreads citrus greening disease through a bacteria it carries. Photo courtesy of UF/IFAS.

“Once we understand the genes that cause a plant to be sensitive, or conversely, the genes that make another kind of citrus tolerant, then we have targets that we can focus on with new ways to repair the problems in the sensitive plants,” Gmitter said.

The research UF/IFAS conducts will generate more knowledge about not only curing, but maintaining citrus greening levels too, Payne said. He said he thinks any advancement from the research will make producers more successful and economically prepared to stay in business.

The major concern behind research efforts is the factor of time.  The constant threat of citrus greening spreading to more crops has caused many growers to find alternative crops to grow, as well as an increase in costs to care for affected plants, Payne said.

“It’s costing about $2,000 an acre more in growing citrus. For a lot of the smaller operators, it’s getting too expensive,” he said. “What we’re seeing is a consolidation of the citrus industry.”

An Asian citrus psyllid feeds on a citrus tree, leaving the citrus greening bacteria. The bacteria will starve the tree of nutrients and eventually kill it. Photo courtesy of UF/IFAS.

An Asian citrus psyllid feeds on a citrus tree, leaving the citrus greening bacteria. The bacteria will starve the tree of nutrients and eventually kill it. Photo courtesy of UF/IFAS.

Others are more optimistic that helping citrus growers find ways to treat citrus greening will restore the industry’s strength.

“Citrus growers want to grow citrus, however, many are spooked by the threat of HLB,” Meadows said. “If that threat is removed, you will have major re-plantings.”

Gmitter believes that even if UF/IFAS does not find a cure for citrus greening, any new information generated by the research will positively influence the citrus industry.

“Production costs will be decreased substantially, the use of pesticides can be dramatically lowered leading to environmental benefits, as well as making citrus products safer,” Gmitter said. “The critical economic engine that the industry represents to the state of Florida will be restored.”

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Florida Lawmakers Propose Changes To Drug Policies

By on March 2nd, 2015 | Last updated: March 2, 2015 at 1:02 pm

Tobacco, marijuana and alcohol policies could undergo changes in Tallahassee this year as state lawmakers are preparing to introduce plans that could change the state’s drug laws. Several senators and representatives, such as Senator Jack Latvala, are taking stances on the debate of approving 64 ounce bottle of alcohol.

Non-euphoric marijuana was approved last session for certain patients but Jeff Brandes, Republican senator from St. Petersburg, hopes to deflate further support for the issue.

“I want it to be able to be vetted,” he said. “I want it to be able to have public comment  from those that are for it, and against it.”

Roll-your-own shops are also facing backlash from lawmakers, as they offer sell loose tobacco that customers can have packed into cigarettes with the help of a machine.



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Questions Raised About Proposed Pot Rule

By on March 2nd, 2015 | Last updated: March 2, 2015 at 5:43 pm

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, February 27, 2015 — A lawyer for the Legislature is questioning the Department of Health’s proposed medical-marijuana rule, slated for a public vetting on Monday.

The top lawyer for the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee raised concerns this week about a variety of issues, including a scoring system proposal to decide “dispensing organizations” that will grow, process and distribute the non-euphoric marijuana legalized last year.

The proposal under scrutiny is the department’s second stab at creating a framework for types of cannabis that are low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabadiol, or CBD, authorized by the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott last year for patients who suffer from severe spasms or cancer. An administrative law judge tossed the department’s first attempt at a rule, finding fault with a proposed lottery to choose five nurseries across the state to kick off Florida’s pot industry.

The latest plan, issued after a rare “negotiated rule” workshop last month, replaces the lottery with a scoring system. The weighted scorecard would rate applicants based on cultivation (30 percent), processing (30 percent), dispensing (15 percent), financials (20 percent) and medical director (5 percent).

But, in a 14-page letter Thursday to the health department’s Office of Compassionate Use Director Patricia Nelson, the legislative committee’s chief attorney, Marjorie Holladay, suggested that the proposed scoring system is too vague.

“It does not appear that part III of the application contains any ascertainable minimum thresholds or standards to demonstrate each item,” Holladay wrote.

Under the law, five nurseries that have been in business for 30 years or longer and cultivate at least 400,000 plants would be eligible to apply for licenses in five regions.

But Holladay’s letter also requested an explanation of the department’s decision to allow “dispensing organizations” to grow the product in one place, process it in another and distribute it in other locations, the same issue that prompted a request for a hearing Monday on the proposed rule.

The Joint Administrative Procedures Committee plays a key role in overseeing state regulations and frequently requests more information when new rules are proposed. Two months before Administrative Law Judge W. David Watkins struck down the original proposal in November, Holladay sent health officials a similar inquiry.

In Thursday’s letter, she also asked why health officials are asking applicants to provide information about their relationships with independent laboratories because nothing in the proposed rule requires testing, an expensive process that could raise the cost imposed by the rule, another issue brought up by Holladay.

Florida law requires legislative approval of rules if regulatory costs for all the businesses that participate in the program exceed $200,000 in one year, or $1 million over five years. At last month’s negotiating session, the 12-member panel, hand-picked by health officials, went to great lengths to eliminate costs directly associated with the rule, instead embedding them into the application.

The committee estimated that 15 nurseries would apply for the licenses, bringing the cumulative cost of the rule to just under $1 million.

But the proposal does not address how much the biannual renewal fee would be, Holladay noted.

“Depending on the amount of this fee, the statutory threshold for legislative ratification could be triggered, especially because there will be three renewal fees to be paid by the five dispensing organizations seeking renewal within five years after implementation of the rule,” Holladay wrote.

Health officials had wanted to avoid legislative approval in order to get the product to eligible patients sooner. The law had required the department to have selected the five dispensing organizations by Jan. 1 of this year, but the legal challenge created a delay.

Senate Regulated Industries Chairman Rob Bradley, whose panel is expected to take up other medical-medical marijuana legislation this session and who was instrumental in passage of the low-THC measure last year, said he wants the issue resolved.

“If it’s required, it needs to be done,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said.



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