Wednesday, July 30, 2014         

 Print   Email   Comment | View 35 Comments   Most Popular   Save   Post   Retweet

Mouse drop targets Guam's brown tree snake infestation

Officials hope to thin the reptile population using dead rodents laced with painkillers

By Eric Talmadge

Associated Press


ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam » Dead mice laced with painkillers are about to rain down on Guam's jungle canopy. They are scientists' prescription for a headache that has caused the tiny U.S. territory misery for more than 60 years: the brown tree snake.

Most of Guam's native bird species are extinct because of the snake, which reached the island's thick jungles by hitching rides from the South Pacific on U.S. military ships shortly after World War II. There may be 2 million of the reptiles on Guam now, decimating wildlife, biting residents and even knocking out electricity by slithering onto power lines.

In Hawaii, more than 3,000 miles away, environmental officials have long feared a similar invasion — which likely would be a "snakes on a plane" scenario. That would cost the state many vulnerable species and billions of dollars, but the risk will fall if Guam's air-drop strategy succeeds.

"We are taking this to a new phase," said Daniel Vice, assistant state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services in Hawaii, Guam and the Pacific Islands. "There really is no other place in the world with a snake problem like Guam."

Brown tree snakes are generally a few feet long but can grow to more than 10 feet. Most of Guam's native birds were defenseless against the nocturnal, tree-based predators, and within a few decades of the reptile's arrival, nearly all of them were wiped out.

The snakes can also climb power poles and wires, causing blackouts, or slither into homes and bite people, including babies; they use venom on their prey, but it is not lethal to humans.

The infestation and the toll the snakes have taken on native wildlife have tarnished Guam's image as a tourism haven, though the snakes are rarely seen outside their jungle habitat.

The solution to this headache, fittingly enough, is acetaminophen, the active ingredient in painkillers including Tylenol.

The strategy takes advantage of the snake's two big weaknesses. Unlike most snakes, brown tree snakes are happy to eat prey they didn't kill themselves, and they are highly vulnerable to acetaminophen, which is harmless to humans.

The upcoming mice drop is targeted to hit snakes near Guam's sprawling Andersen Air Force Base, which is surrounded by heavy foliage and if compromised would offer the snakes a potential ticket off the island. Using helicopters, the dead neonatal mice will be dropped by hand, one by one.

U.S. governmentscientists have been perfecting the mice-drop strategy for more than a decade with support from the Department of Defense and the Department of the Interior.

To keep the mice bait from dropping all the way to the ground, where it could be eaten by other animals or attract insects as they rot, researchers have developed a flotation device with streamers designed to catch in the branches of the forest foliage, where the snakes live and feed.

Experts say the impact on other species will be minimal, particularly since the snakes themselves wiped out the birds that might have been most at risk.

"One concern was that crows may eat mice with the toxicant," said William Pitt of the U.S. National Wildlife Research Center's Hawaii Field Station. "However, there are no longer wild crows on Guam. We will continue to refine methods to increase efficiency and limit any potential nontarget hazards."

The mouse drop is set to start in April or May.

Vice said the goal is not to eradicate the snakes, but to control and contain them. Just as the snakes found their way to Guam, they could stow away on a ship, or more likely the cargo hold of an airplane, and begin breeding on other islands around the Pacific or even the U.S. West Coast.

That "snakes on a plane" scenario has officials in Hawaii on edge. The islands of Hawaii, like Guam, lack the predators that could keep a brown tree snake population in check.

Native Hawaiian birds "literally don't know what to do when they see a snake coming," said Christy Martin, a spokes­woman for the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species, a partnership of Hawaii government agencies and private organizations.

A 2010 study conducted by the National Wildlife Research Center found brown tree snakes would cause between $593 million and $2.14 billion in economic damage each year if they became established in Hawaii like they are on Guam. Power failures would cause the most damage, followed by a projected decline in tourism. The cost of treating snake bites would account for a small share.

"Once we get snakes here, we're never going to be able to fix the situation," Martin said.

Though the snakes are native to Australia and Papua New Guinea, Guam is much closer to Hawaii and its snake population is much more dense, meaning it is the primary threat for snake stowaways.

So far, Guam's containment seems to be working. Only a few brown tree snakes have ever been found in Hawaii, and none over the past 17 years.

"If we continue doing what we are doing, the chance of success is very high," Vice said. "If what we are doing stops, I think the possibility of the snakes getting to Hawaii is inevitable."


AP writer Audrey McAvoy contributed to this report from Honolulu.

 Print   Email   Comment | View 35 Comments   Most Popular   Save   Post   Retweet

You must be subscribed to participate in discussions
By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. Because only subscribers are allowed to comment, we have your personal information and are able to contact you. If your comments are inappropriate, you may receive a warning, and if you persist with such comments you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email commentfeedback@staradvertiser.com.
Leave a comment

Please login to leave a comment.
false wrote:
Just the sight of its slither is chilling. Finding one on a hike would just be a gross experience. We have been so blessed with not having the vermin. Genius solution for Guam. Let's hope it works.
on February 23,2013 | 01:23AM
niimi wrote:
I believe ecoterrorism founded in competing destinations such as Mexico or the Bahamas will be the source of brown tree snakes in Hawaii and not some accidental drop. Mexico and the like have the most to gain if Hawaii's tourism falls off.
on February 23,2013 | 09:56AM
niimi wrote:
Hey, it is the year of the Snake!
on February 23,2013 | 09:57AM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
Reason why snakes have not been much of a problem is because of the mongoose introduced to control rats in sugar cane and pineapple fields. The Plantations just introduced a different species that was just as damaging to the ecosystem.
on February 23,2013 | 02:48PM
tiki886 wrote:
If only we could find a way to control and contain Liberals and democrats from breeding.
on February 23,2013 | 03:24AM
LittleEarl_01 wrote:
Well spoken tiki886.
on February 23,2013 | 04:35AM
false wrote:
It's too late. The breeding time passed a long time ago. Besides like you other guys, the spirit doesn't give up. They have v.......too!
on February 23,2013 | 05:07AM
hanalei395 wrote:
Losers .... letting their frustrations, defeats, disappointments out on a message board.
on February 23,2013 | 07:32AM
DowntownGreen wrote:
It keeps them busy. At least it takes them away from standing in the front yard, shaking their fists while they yell at neighborhood kids..
on February 23,2013 | 09:27AM
localguy wrote:
They do have one thing in common with the brown tree snake, they both eat dead prey.
on February 23,2013 | 05:19AM
awahana wrote:
Like living on Guam, you are living on the wrong island if you are slithery and slimy.
Right wingers will not thrive here. And we don't even need to stuff you with Tylenol.
But maybe you already take Coumadin tho, so that helps. LOL.
on February 23,2013 | 05:47AM
bender wrote:
Replying to tiki886. Your comment demonstrates what an overdose of Fox News will do to the sensibilities of some people.
on February 23,2013 | 09:55AM
kailuabred wrote:
Looking at your face might scare them into abstinence
on February 23,2013 | 12:33PM
soundofreason wrote:
"Native Hawaiian birds "literally don't know what to do when they see a snake coming,"

""Once we get snakes here, we're never going to be able to fix the situation," Martin said."

You know what's weird? Replace the word "snake" with the word "Democrat".......and the story still works!

on February 23,2013 | 05:04AM
bender wrote:
Another off comment from the Fox News Admiration Society.
on February 23,2013 | 09:57AM
kolekole wrote:
New York is one such breeding facility for Libs. Hawaii's Libs just follow their tail.
on February 23,2013 | 05:16AM
brianericd wrote:
Seriously? People turn an article on snakes into political idiocy?
on February 23,2013 | 05:54AM
soundofreason wrote:
We're THAT good!
on February 23,2013 | 06:06AM
bpet wrote:
Good for WHAT?
on February 23,2013 | 07:11AM
DowntownGreen wrote:
Not much of anything. But it does make them feel better.
on February 23,2013 | 07:15AM
kailuabred wrote:
You mean that stupid
on February 23,2013 | 12:34PM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
Given the effectiveness of other eradication methods I expect the end result of dead mice full of acetaminophen will be lots of snakes without headaches.
on February 23,2013 | 07:26AM
hanalei395 wrote:
Snakes on a plane. There was one, found on a Continental Airlines plane from Guam, in a wheel undercarriage. Fortunately, it was dead.
on February 23,2013 | 08:00AM
niimi wrote:
I say again, ecoterrorism will be initiated by some competing destination country such as Mexico, Australia, New Zealand or Thailand. They will bribe some dodo who will bring in that brown tree snake to Hawaii to ruin our islands so that the other destination gets more business. That is what we should be on our guard for.
on February 23,2013 | 09:55AM
bender wrote:
I'm wondering why the goal isn't to eradicate the snakes. If they don't then they will keep reproducing and this will be an oingoing battle. I guess it's job security for a few if they aren't eradicated.
on February 23,2013 | 09:59AM
tiki886 wrote:
Because like the ACLU, the animal rights freaks will sue if you kill too many snakes. The snakes have to be sued into submission and deported back to Australia.
on February 23,2013 | 12:10PM
kailuabred wrote:
Typical loser comment.
on February 23,2013 | 12:35PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
kailua - evidently tiki's sarcasm struck a nerve but you could not produce anything intelligible back. How about enlightening everyone on the basis and reasons for your comment?
on February 23,2013 | 02:42PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
bender - the eventual goal would be to eradicate the snakes but methods to do so if pursued too vigorously would also kill a lot of pets and stray cats and dogs which would stir a backlash from the populace.
on February 23,2013 | 03:00PM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
I wonder if dead mice filled with Tylenol would work on our feral cat population?
on February 23,2013 | 03:01PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
Why, you don't like cats? Maybe we should call you Obake_Neko?
on February 23,2013 | 03:40PM
hanalei395 wrote:
Homeless cats.
on February 23,2013 | 04:23PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
Cats aren't that bad. I'm thinking more along the lines of eradicating of pests like ALL-LIE. Maybe someone should go catch some crab and mantis shrimp from the Ala Wai and feed that to him?
on February 23,2013 | 08:43PM
fiveo wrote:
Simple solution would be to offer a bounty on the brown tree snake. Snake problem would be eliminated in short order. Humans have proven themselves very adapt at wiping out any animal species that they choose to pursue (i.e.: dodo bird, buffalo,wolf,whales etc) given the right monetary incentive. The recent snake catching contest in Florida did not succeed in bagging many snakes because catching snakes are best done via trapping methods. You get them to come to you, not the other way around. Done the right way, making it profitable for people to go out and trap, the brown tree snake in Guam, would result in the brown tree snakes extinction in no time. Human history is full of such examples where many animal species were hunted to extinction or near extinction when there was a financial incentive. Like gordon geckos said "Greed is Good".
on February 24,2013 | 08:47AM
cartwright wrote:
Anybody knows if they have mongoose on Guam? Great snake catchers. And if they are neutered they would not multiply.
on February 24,2013 | 09:18AM
Latest News/Updates
Deedy back on the stand  - 08:51 a.m.