Florida. An exotic place where land meets sea and the people are wilder than the animals.
The great outdoors are engrained in the culture of the Sunshine state. In 2020, only California and Texas sold more fishing licenses than the state of Florida. The sale of those fishing licenses generated more than $62 million for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
While hunting is less popular than fishing in Florida, it’s still very popular. Florida is the only state you can hunt Osceola turkeys, plus the deer hunting is solid and the hog and alligator hunting is top notch.
A new outdoor activity is becoming increasingly popular in Florida though – iguana hunting.
Iguanas are not native to Florida and are considered an invasive species.
Because they are invasive, they are not protected in Florida and can be hunted 365 days a year on private land without a permit or hunting license, and on public Wildlife Management Areas in the southern part of the state.
Their native range extends from Brazil and Paraguay up through Mexico. They’re also quite common on the island of Puerto Rico, where their tasty meat is so adored that they’re known as “gallina de palo” which translates to “bamboo chicken” or “chicken of the trees.”
Puerto Rico has an even a stronger iguana hunting culture than Florida, and no recipe for eating iguana meat is more celebrated than some good old fashioned tacos. Although simply frying the meat is also a popular option.
The big lizards typically grow between 4-5 feet long from the tip of their snout to the end of their tail. Although some specimens have measured in well over 6 feet long and up to 20-pounds. They can live up to 10 years in the wild and even longer than that in captivity.
Iguanas have long been sold as pets in the U.S., but breeding populations have been well established in Florida for decades and though population estimates are hard to come by, there is believed to be hundreds of thousands of them running wild.
The earliest reports of wild iguanas in Florida first surfaced in Dade County back in the 1960s. Their populations have failed to extend much further north than that due to climate limitations. While some of the wild iguanas certainly come from escaped pet lineages, others are believed to have been inadvertently brought to the state by cargo ships from South America.
While the thought of exotic lizards roaming Florida seems awesome to some folks, iguanas have been to known to get into trouble. Their preference for eating ornamental flowers and other garden plants paired with their daily habit of depositing up to a pound of poop on the ground, they are not popular with many home owners.
Tunnels left by iguanas in a West Palm Beach dam once caused almost $2 million in damages.
In 2018, an iguana wreaked havoc in a Key West electrical facility, causing a ten minute power outage on the whole island.
Iguanas are incredibly tough to kill though, and it usually takes a headshot. They’re also great escape artists, capable of diving underwater and climbing trees. The hardy lizards are even capable of withstanding up to 50 foot drops without being harmed.
However, like all reptiles, iguanas are literally solar powered.
Due to their cold blooded nature, iguanas become immobile when the temperatures fall below 44 degrees Fahrenheit. In situations where temperatures in Florida have dropped quickly, instances of entire colonies of temporarily petrified iguanas falling from the tree tops has been observed.
No iguana hunter is more prominent than Florida’s very own Python Cowboy, Trapper Mike.
He owns Martin County Trapping & Wildlife Rescue, a company that specializes in removing invasive species from suburban neighbors and golf courses. His YouTube channel is full of iguana hunting videos and he even has a good dog named Otto that is specially trained to hunt iguanas.
Most iguana hunting is done without dogs though.
The most common strategy for hunting iguanas is simply cruising Florida’s many canals and waterways while surveying rock walls and trees to find the lizards basking in the sun. Shots are usually taken from the boat and air rifles are the most common form of weaponry used for iguana hunting since most of the hunting takes place in suburban areas.