It appears the effort to eradicate the notorious brown tree snake on Guam and keep it from infesting Hawaii will not fall victim to congressional budget tightening – at least for now.
The program was on the verge of being canceled this week because the fiscal year is ending and Congress has imposed a moratorium on the type of earmark funding that has kept it running for years.
At the last minute, the Defense and Interior departments agreed to pitch in $2.9 million to rescue the effort to secure ports and kill off the snakes for the next nine months, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The brown tree snake was introduced on Guam following World War II and has since decimated native bird species and plagued the island with electrical blackouts caused by snakes infesting transformers. Meanwhile, scientists fear the pest could be accidentally imported to Hawaii and severely damage the island environment and cost hundreds of millions of dollars – or even billions – in economic losses.
“We don’t want a break in service, obviously, and so that’s why there was very much concern over the budget situation,” said Mike Pitzler, who oversees the program as the Hawaii, Guam and Pacific Island state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s wildlife services section, according to The Associated Press.
The departments are committing to only nine months of funding because they are concerned over the annual $5 million cost of the program at a time when all parts of federal government are grappling with budget cuts, the AP reported. The Department of Defense is contributing $2.4 million and Interior is pitching in $500,000.
They’re expected to discuss in coming months how to continue the program for the last quarter of the fiscal year and beyond.
Pitzler told the AP on Thursday that he would look for ways to restructure and cut costs, but he’s not sure how he can do this without affecting the scope of the work.
“My job will be to make sure that our work isn’t compromised, our ability to prevent snakes from leaving Guam is not compromised,” he said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others have questioned over the years why the Pentagon should pay to control snakes on Guam.
The program has been the target of fierce critics of earmarks. In 2009, the Citizens Against Government Waste included brown tree snake control in its “Congressional Pig Book” highlighting alleged examples of government pork barrel spending.
Pitzler said the vast majority of cargo leaving Guam belongs to the Navy and the Air Force, so it’s natural the DOD pay to screen for the snakes, according to the AP. The program not only protects warm climates such as Hawaii and Texas where the snakes would thrive, but also military bases in those states.
The funding pays for 58 workers who maintain 4,000 snake traps around Guam, look for snakes that climb fences at night, poison the reptiles and search cargo leaving the island.
They use dogs while hunting for snakes hiding on ships and planes leaving Guam, placing a priority on cargo heading for warm locations.