The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday said it will ban, effective in late March, the import and interstate transport of four non-native python snakes because of the threat they pose to wildlife in the Florida Everglades and other sensitive ecosystems.
The final rule, to be published in the Federal Register
in the next few days, lists four constrictor snakes that will be prohibited in the United States to restrict their spread in the wild. They are the Burmese python, yellow anaconda, and northern and southern African pythons.
The four species are considered to have a risk of establishing populations and spreading to other geographic areas. Officials say the Burmese python has already gained a foothold in the Everglades, where it is causing economic and environmental damage. Burmese pythons in Florida are known to eat endangered wood storks and the highly endangered Key Largo wood rats.
Scientists estimate there are thousands of pythons living in the Everglades. They believe they were introduced to the swamps by pet owners who decided to free their imported reptiles into the wild. Others simply escape their owners. They say the snakes threaten to destabilize valuable ecosystems and parks by preying on native birds, mammals and reptiles that have never had to deal with huge predatory snakes which can reach lengths of more than 20 feet and upwards of 200 pounds.
Compounding their risk to the local environment is that the non-native constrictor snakes mature early, produce large numbers of offspring, travel long distances, and have broad diets, according to a 2009 report by the U.S. Geological Survey. The report also said pythons now have the ability to swim from the Everglades to the Florida Keys because they can tolerate salt water for a short period.
In 2011, the Department of the Interior spent more than $100 million to combat invasive species. In the Everglades alone, state and federal agencies have spent more than $6 million since 2005 to deal with the threats posed by the pythons, but far less than is required to combat their spread, the FSW said. Another $102.6 million has been spent over 10 years by the state and federal government to help restore the wood stork and the Key Largo wood rats. If the snake species migrate to other areas, states and the federal government will be forced to spend more money to control their spread, the FWS warned.
One of the tools used by conservation agencies to find and eradicate large constrictor snakes is "snake sniffing" dogs.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has pushed since 2009 for a federal ban on the sale and import of non-native snake species. Attitudes about the need for action began to change last year when a 16-foot python was found to have swallowed a 76-pound deer in the Everglades and a 13-foot python devoured a six-foot live alligator, his office said.
The Department of the Interior, of which FSW is a part, is authorized to regulate the import and interstate transport of wildlife species determined to be injurious to humans and wildlife resources, as well as agricultural, horticultural and forestry interests.
People who own the four species of snakes will not be effected by the rule, but they cannot transport or ship them across state lines. Those who wish to export these species may do so from a designated port with their state after acquiring appropriate permits from FWS.
FWS Director Dan Ashe said the agency is considering adding five other species of non-native snakes to the banned list, including the reticulated python, boa constrictor, DeSchauensee's anaconda, green anaconda and Beni anaconda. — Eric Kulisch