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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, October 25, 2004

Serpent could slither into Hawai'i through budget gap

By Frank Oliveri
Advertiser Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — A constant battle for money and unsuccessful efforts to control the brown tree snake on Guam threaten Hawai'i's fragile ecological balance.

The Interior Department recently provided $300,000 in funding to keep eight trained inspectors on the job, maintain cargo inspections from Guam, and prevent a 50 percent reduction in trapping services on and around Guam's military and civilian ports, government officials said.

That emergency money might not be enough, however. Government and scientific experts on the snake say more has to be done soon to contain the pest on Guam, or Hawai'i could be overrun.

"Things are grave right now," said U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawai'i. "The risk is the greatest it has ever been."

At stake are Hawai'i's native birds and biodiversity. The state's economy also stands to lose $1.7 billion annually, because brown tree snakes climb power lines and cause frequent power outages, according to a recent University of Hawai'i study.

The situation is sufficiently alarming that on Sept. 8, all four members of the Hawai'i congressional delegation sent letters to the president's Office of Management and Budget, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, asking for stopgap funding and a long-term plan to cope with the threat.

The brown tree snake, which can grow to be 3 to 6 feet long, is a voracious predator that feeds on birds and rodents. The snake got to Guam after World War II in military transports from its native Solomon Islands.

With no known predator, the brown tree snake population burgeoned on Guam. The snake became so prolific that some estimate its population at more than 10,000 per acre. Because of the snake, nine of 11 native bird species on Guam are now extinct.

Also, these snakes have been known to bite infants. While their mild venom typically causes only swelling in adults, some bitten children require breathing assistance.

Annually, inspectors turn up between 6,000 and 7,000 snakes on Guam from military and civilian aircraft and ships. In September, 34 airplanes left Andersen Air Force Base on Guam without being inspected for brown tree snakes.

"Inspectors are the front line of defense," said Gordon Rodda, a brown tree snake expert with the U.S. Geological Survey. "The money has not kept pace with costs and the great increase in military activity on Guam."

The need for more funding is an immediate problem, Case said. But $2.6 million in brown tree snake control money is held up in Congress, tied up in a spending bill for the Interior Department. Congress will try to break the logjam on fiscal 2005 appropriations bills when it returns for a lame-duck session on Nov. 16.

Congress passed a bill that authorizes the government to spend $77.5 million between fiscal 2006 and 2010 for control and eradication of the brown tree snake. President Bush is expected to sign it into law soon.

While the bill set policy for how the money should be spent, lawmakers must wait until next year to decide how to allocate the funds.

"That's the good news and the bad news," said Mark Fox, of the Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i.

Eight brown tree snakes have been found, alive or dead, in Hawai'i, all in association with shipments from Guam.

Between Aug. 12 and Sept. 3, the largest search for a snake to date —up to 50 people — was conducted on Maui, in Hana. Experts said the summer sighting was highly credible.

The search turned up no snake, but did provide some training for the multi-agency team.

Two people reported seeing a snake cross the road and, within hours, were interviewed by experts. Using what is called a snake kit, experts confirmed the sighting by the witnesses. Interviewed separately, the witnesses identified the same characteristics of the snake and even selected the same sample photos of the species.

A trained search team was on-site within hours. About 50 traps with mice were laid in the area. Searchers worked at night — when the snake was most likely to move around. Some searchers thought they could smell a carcass, but none was ever found.

There is an old, hand-built rock wall system there, numerous lava tubes and sunken depressions where the snake could hide, said Domingo Cravalho, an invertebrate specialist with the Hawai'i Department of Agriculture who helped coordinate the effort. A wounded or dying snake easily could hole up in a crevasse.

"It was pretty daunting," he said.

Haldre Rogers, coordinator of the Brown Tree Snake Rapid Response Team for the U.S. Geological Survey on Guam, who led the search effort in Hana, said that if the snake were to establish footholds on Hawai'i and other Pacific islands the results would be catastrophic: "Once it spreads, we have no chance of controlling it, but if we get it early, we have a chance to eradicate it."