Well, the intention is good, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's request that there be a ban on importing or transporting pythons and other constricting snakes might be coming just a bit too late to help Everglades National Park.
Burmese pythons -- and other non-native species -- long have been a problem in the Everglades; there have been estimates that as many as 10,000 pythons are slithering through south Florida. More than 1,200 of the snakes have been removed from Everglades National Park since 2000, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials.
On Wednesday, Secretary Salazar announced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will propose to list the Burmese python and eight other large constrictor snakes that threaten the Everglades and other sensitive ecosystems as “injurious wildlife” under the Lacey Act. The secretary made the announcement at the Port of New York, which his staff says serves as the largest point of entry in the nation for imports of wildlife and wildlife products. Last year, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors at John F. Kennedy International Airport handled more than 27, 000 separate wildlife shipments valued at more than $1 billion, or 16 percent of all U.S. wildlife imports, according to a USFWS release.
The proposal, which will be open to public comment before Secretary Salazar makes a final decision, would prohibit importation and interstate transportation of the animals.
“The Burmese python and these other alien snakes are destroying some of our nation’s most treasured – and most fragile – ecosystems,” he said. “The Interior Department and states such as Florida are taking swift and common sense action to control and eliminate the populations of these snakes, but it is an uphill battle in ecosystems where they have no natural predators. If we are going to succeed, we must shut down the importation of the snakes and end the interstate commerce and transportation of them.”
In total, wildlife inspectors stationed at ports across the nation processed more than 169,700 shipments of wildlife and wildlife products last year with an estimated value of $2.7 billion, officials said.
“Our wildlife inspectors are the front line of defense for the nation, combating illegal wildlife trafficking and preventing the importation of countless species of illegal injurious wildlife. This proposal will give them an additional tool to restrict imports that are causing significant ecological and economic damage, while giving our law enforcement agents the ability to restrict the spread of these species within our borders,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Sam Hamilton.
The nine species proposed for listing are: the Burmese python, northern African python, southern African python, reticulated python, green anaconda, yellow anaconda, Beni or Bolivian anaconda, DeSchauensee’s anaconda, and boa constrictor.
Many of these large snakes are popular as pets, and are associated with a large domestic and international trade. Over the past 30 years, about a million individuals of these nine species have been imported into the United States, and current domestic production of some species likely exceeds import levels, the USFWS said.
Under the Lacey Act, the Interior secretary can regulate the importation and interstate transport of species determined to be injurious to humans, the interests of agriculture, horticulture or forestry, and the welfare and survival of wildlife resources of the United States.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL and Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-FL, have introduced legislation in Congress, supported by Secretary Salazar and the Obama administration, that would also restrict importation and interstate sale and transportation of the nine species of constrictor snakes. Wednesday's announcement ensures that the "injurious" proposal will be considered through all available legislative and administrative avenues.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will publish the proposed rule in the Federal Register in early February. At that time, the agency will also make a draft economic analysis and draft environmental analysis available to the public. The public will then have 60 days to comment on the proposal.
The U.S. Geological Survey issued a risk assessment last October that highlighted the threat: Of the nine large constrictors assessed, five were shown to pose a high risk to the health of the ecosystem, including the Burmese python, northern African python, southern African python, yellow anaconda, and boa constrictor. The remaining four large constrictors—the reticulated python, green anaconda, Beni or Bolivian anaconda, and DeSchauensee’s anaconda—were shown to pose a medium risk.
Secretary Salazar strongly encouraged pet owners not to release snakes or any other pets into the wild.
“People may think that this is a convenient and humane way to be rid of unwanted animals, but as in the case of pythons and other constrictors, it can lead to devastating consequences for local wildlife populations and the ecosystems they depend on,” the secretary noted.