The Florida Everglades teems with wildlife. Until relatively recently, alligators were king. They eat just about everything.
Today, however, even gators succumb to huge exotic snakes. Released into the wild by irresponsible collectors and pet owners, giant constrictors have climbed atop the Everglades food chain. These snakes can weigh more than 100 pounds and grow to almost 20 feet in length.
When released into the sub-tropical Everglades, big snakes thrive. Today, experts estimate that more than 10,000 pythons inhabit the Everglades. They eat everything from great blue herons to alligators and deer. In a recent study of the stomach contents of 56 Burmese pythons captured in or near Everglades National Park, 50 had eaten multiple species of birds including white ibis, limpkins, king rails and clapper rails.
Efforts are now under way to eliminate these snakes from the Everglades, but finding them is truly like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. So it's welcome news that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finalized a rule that will ban the importation and interstate transportation of four nonnative constrictor snakes that threaten the Everglades and other sensitive ecosystems across the United States.
The rule, which incorporates public comments, economic analysis, and an environmental assessment, lists Burmese pythons, yellow anacondas, and northern and southern African pythons as injurious to wildlife under the Lacey Act (the federal law that governs the trafficking of wildlife).
''The Burmese python has already gained a foothold in the Florida Everglades,'' Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said in a statement. ''We must do all we can to battle its spread and to prevent further human contributions of invasive snakes that cause economic and environmental damage.''
I suspect reptile collectors will protest this rule, but their track record speaks for itself. Regulations restricting the ownership and sale of large invasive snakes have become an ecological imperative.
''By taking this action,'' USFWS Director Dan Ashe said, ''we will help prevent further harm from these large constrictors to native wildlife, especially in habitats that can support constrictor snake populations across the southern U.S. and in U.S. territories.''
Reaction from conservation groups to the new rule has been positive. ''In recent years, the release of nonnative snakes into sensitive bird habitats such as the Florida Everglades has reached epidemic proportions,'' said George Fenwick, president of American Bird Conservancy, the nation's leading bird conservation organization. ''Unwitting individuals are buying these animals only to later realize they can't keep a 6-foot-long snake in their homes. They dump them in the wild, where they breed and feed on native birds and other wildlife.''
''This was a decision that had to be made,'' Fenwick said. ''Populations of long-lived and reproductively prolific invasive snakes, such as the Burmese python, represent an ecological and economic disaster that can quickly overtake even the most far-reaching eradication efforts to protect endangered and declining species.''
Furthermore, Fenwick cited the widespread destruction caused by the introduction of the brown tree snake to Guam from its native range in New Guinea and Australia in the 1950s. Preying on eggs and adult birds alike, brown tree snakes have caused the extinction of nine of the 11 native land bird species on Guam. ''Its predation of native birds has been so complete that brown tree snakes now survive by feeding almost exclusively on the island's lizard species,'' he said.
Michael Hutchins, executive director of The Wildlife Society, agrees. ''In addition to their devastating ecological impacts, these species pose a significant financial burden to taxpayers,'' he said. Eradicating these snakes after they establish themselves in an ecosystem is extremely difficult. Preventative measures must be taken to ensure that the havoc caused by invasive snakes in south Florida not be repeated elsewhere.
The new rule will become effective 60 days after its publication in the Federal Register. It will take years to undo the damage that has been done in the Everglades but this is certainly a step in the right direction.
And for the approximately one million tourists who will visit the Everglades this year, these giant snakes are just one more reason to stay on the trails and boardwalks.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033 or by email via my website, scottshalaway.googlepages.com.