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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Hawai'i on snake watch after Guam typhoon

 •  Typhoon's damage includes livelihood of residents
 •  More stories, photos from Pacific Daily News

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

Hawai'i officials are being placed on high alert for a possible invasion by brown tree snakes on emergency aircraft and ships helping Guam recover from Typhoon Pongsana.

How to help Guam recover

Send checks or money orders made out to the American Red Cross to the Hawai'i state chapter, 4155 Diamond Head Road, Honolulu, HI 96816. The American Red Cross requests that checks be designated to go to the National Disaster Relief Fund.

Pongsana, which hit the island before dawn Sunday, along with immense devastation across the small island, has destroyed the program to stop brown tree snakes from entering seaports, airports and cargo handling areas.

"There is basically nothing to stop these snakes from going right into the ports," said Mike Pitzler, state director of U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services.

Pitzler is scheduled to meet in an emergency session today with officials of the Hawai'i Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others.

"We're meeting with them to make sure they are preparing for the worst," he said.

Neil Reimer, manager of the state Department of Agriculture's plant quarantine branch, said at a minimum his agency will inspect every plane that arrives from Guam — private, commercial and military.

At today's meeting, the agencies will map out what other measures might be needed.

Reimer said the state doesn't need convincing about the dangers of the snakes.

"It is a big concern," he said. "It is a top priority for us. The brown tree snake we see as a very high-risk pest."

Brown tree snakes, known to science as Boiga irregularis, are responsible for the extinction of virtually all of Guam's forest birds. The long, very slim snakes also eat small mammals, span power lines to cause electric outages and have been known to enter homes and bite infants in their cribs.

Four snakes have been found in Hawai'i, generally at airports. None has been known to have escaped.

"Basically, if you see one, you have to kill it immediately," Pitzler said. "If they get loose, they're gone. They are very secretive and can hide in very small places."

In Guam, Pitzler's agency caught 13,000 snakes in the 2002 fiscal year. A staff of 41 manages 3,200 traps baited with live mice. The mice are in special containers in the traps, so that snakes can't get at them, even if they're inside the traps.

But most of those traps, and the fences they are hung on, have been destroyed by Sunday's supertyphoon. Additionally, roads are closed because they are covered with fallen concrete power poles.

The four major fuel tanks at the main port were on fire yesterday, Pitzler said, and non-military agencies are not allowed to get fuel. As a result, the agency's 15 snake-sniffing dogs can't be deployed; their handlers can't get them to the air and sea ports.

Furthermore, several employees are homeless as a result of the storm, and the agency is trying to help them before getting the snake patrol efforts back on line.

"We've been running snake traps, dogs and inspecting cargo since 1993, and we've never been disrupted like this," Pitzler said.

But they know the risk. During the last typhoon, snake control efforts were briefly interrupted, and shortly afterwards, brown tree snakes were found in Alaska and on Diego Garcia atoll, believed to have come from military flights from Guam.

As of yesterday afternoon, all ports and airports on Guam were still closed, but the moment flights and ships start flying in, they will be at risk of bringing snakes back out with them.

The state's Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species issued a notice yesterday that the threat could continue to be elevated for months to come.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.