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Invasive snakes need to be eradicated

For Wednesday, July 27, 2011

LAST UPDATED: 3:37 a.m. HST, Jul 27, 2011

The capture this month of 14 reptiles brought into Hawaii illegally has raised fresh concerns over the ease with which these ecological time bombs have penetrated the state’s fragile ecosystem.

The 14 reptiles, which included six snakes, probably represent just a small portion of the snakes that slither past the state’s inadequate safeguards, officials say.

That’s why it’s critical that Congress continue to support the so-far-successful efforts to shield Hawaii from the most worrisome pest of all — the brown tree snake — despite ignorant depictions by critics that the effort is nothing more than political pork from U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye.

Republican members of the U.S. House agreed earlier this year to ban all earmark spending, eliminating direct congressional funding and casting doubt on the future of the program. The Obama administration should prevent the damage by including funds in its budget to control the pest.

Hawaii’s congressional delegation was joined last month by House members Madeleine Z. Bordallo of Guam and Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan of the Northern Mariana Islands in asking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to maintain funding for the inspection and eradication program. Eight brown tree snakes have been found on Oahu since 1981, but only one since federal inspection of cargo ships was begun in 1994.

Inouye has been able to earmark several million dollars a year for the program, but has been harshly criticized by groups such as Taxpayers for Common Sense, who are playing politics with a serious ecological and economic threat.

The 14 illegal reptiles brought to Hawaii have captured the headlines, for good reason: They threatened to wreak havoc on an environment filled with endangered species. The brown tree snake demonstrates how.

Since arriving from the Solomon Islands aboard military vessels during World War II, the brown tree snake has killed off 10 of Guam’s 13 native forest bird species. Having few if any natural predators on the island, the snakes now number in the hundreds of thousands, with estimates of 3,000 per square mile.

One of every 1,000 Guam residents a year is reported to be bitten by the snakes, which often slither into beds at night. The medical cost is significant, as are power outages that increased from 13 in 1978 to nearly 200 in 1997.

If that were to happen in Hawaii, a recent survey of tourists visiting Hawaii indicated that 8.8 percent would have vacationed elsewhere. If the consequences of the snakes’ presence resulted in “less birds overall, fewer native birds, the possibility of a snake encounter, and the increased possibility of a power outages,” 20.6 percent of the tourists said they would have traveled elsewhere, and more than half would have shortened their stay in Hawaii, according to a University of Hawaii study last year.

Applying figures from the Guam experience, the UH study estimated that the brown tree snake, if it invades and colonizes Hawaii, would result in annual economic damage of $191,520 to $383,000 in medical care from snake bites, $456 million to $761 million from power outages and $137.8 million to nearly $1.4 billion in tourism losses, for a total averaging $1.3 billion and ranging from $594 million to $2.1 billion. Hawaii cannot afford these numbers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture tried last year to poison brown snakes at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and officials have considered expanding the promising pilot program. But it’s probably too little, too late.

Political players in Washington poke fun at what they call pork in congressional efforts to prevent human, environmental and economic catastrophe. But it’s not a game. President Barack Obama should insist that his administration's budget not result in his native state becoming the victim of such political gamesmanship.

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