Tuesday, March 17, 1998

‘Clock is ticking’
on Guam snakes

A U.S. official requests $1 million more
to keep the pests out of Hawaii

By Lori Tighe

If brown tree snakes come here from Guam, they would cause "the greatest catastrophe of the century," a federal official says.

The snakes have destroyed Guam's native bird species, which in turn has caused plant pollination and insect control to suffer. The snakes increasingly prey on poultry and pets, since they have nearly wiped out Guam's forest birds. And they cause power outages.

"The chain effect of this is enormous. This is the most significant environmental threat to the Hawaiian archipelago, bar none, of this century," said John Berry, assistant secretary of policy management and budget for the U.S. Department of the Interior.

At a two-day meeting in Honolulu on preventing the snake's spread to Hawaii and throughout the Pacific, officials outlined problems posed by brown tree snakes.

The snakes, which grow to 10 feet, have bitten infants' hands and feet, causing life-threatening trauma to the young children, U.S. wildlife biologists said.

Berry's department recently requested $1 million more for brown tree snake research, upping the federal funds to $3 million.

"The risk of the brown tree snake introduction to Hawaii is unacceptably high right now," said Michael Wilson, chairman of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.

Hawaii residents need to heighten their awareness of the brown tree snake's danger to help keep them out of the state, Wilson said. The Legislature also needs to allow the Agriculture Department to bring in a sterile male snake for use in training dogs to detect the snakes at seaports and airports, he said.

All it takes is one pregnant female to spread the brown tree snakes, since sperm can survive in females for up to four years, Wilson said.

"The clock is ticking here," said Michael Kuhlmann, director of agriculture in Guam. "Sooner or later with this frail defense we have, you're going to get them. It's a big problem. You don't want it to leave Guam."

Snake prevention research conducted at the current rate is too slow, Kuhlmann said. He said federal researchers studying the brown tree snake are based in places including Fort Collins, Colo., and Olympia, Wash. "No researchers are based in Guam because they don't want to go to Guam, but this is where the snakes are," he said.

The Department of Agriculture in Guam recently issued 1,700 snake traps to residents, Kuhlmann said.

Guam residents have noticed the silencing of song birds, whose eggs nourish the brown tree snakes.

Hawaii hosts among the highest number of endangered birds in America, Wilson said.

Guam tries to prevent the snakes from leaving, as Hawaii tries to prevent them from arriving. They use funnel traps with live mouse bait. They conduct spotlight searches of fence lines surrounding port and cargo loading locations.

And they use dogs to sniff them out, Kuhlmann said.

Dogs on snake watch
win better training

By Pat Omandam

An administration bill that would allow the state to bring to Hawaii a live brown tree snake to train dogs has slithered on at the state Legislature.

The House Agriculture Committee yesterday unanimously supported Senate Bill 2773, SD 1, which would allow the Department of Agriculture to import a single sterilized male brown tree snake for research and training.

A House version now in the Senate had allowed for a pair of snakes for training, but Agriculture Chairman Merwyn S. Jones (D, Waianae) didn't want to make the number of snakes the topic of debate for lawmakers.

"Its a real hot item in the Senate," Jones said. "We need to make sure we have at least one snake to train with."

State officials say the bill, which senators passed by a 17-8 vote after some floor debate, is needed to avoid the accidental introduction of snakes that could devastate Hawaii's bird population.

Agriculture Director James J. Nakatani, in written testimony, said the specially trained dogs are the only tools available to screen ships, aircraft and cargo arriving from Guam. The dogs, he said, need to train with live snakes a minimum of every two weeks to remain proficient.

Currently, the only training aids available to the canine unit are the occasional snakes, such as pythons and boas, turned in to the quarantine unit, as well as frozen brown tree snakes from Guam, Nakatani said. "Training on such aids has caused concern on the efficacy of the canine unit's ability to detect the brown tree snake," he said.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources, in written testimony, said one snake is insufficient to meet the demands of training canine teams, and suggested between four to six snakes be imported here.

"This would reduce the amount of stress imposed on any one particular snake by the training regime, and would allow for uninterrupted training of the canine units in the event of a single snake's death," wrote land board Chairman Michael Wilson.

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