ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam » Dead mice laced with painkillers are about to rain down on Guam’s jungle canopy. They are scientists’ prescription for a headache that has caused the tiny U.S. territory misery for more than 60 years: the brown tree snake.
Most of Guam’s native bird species are extinct because of the snake, which reached the island’s thick jungles by hitching rides from the South Pacific on U.S. military ships shortly after World War II. There may be 2 million of the reptiles on Guam now, decimating wildlife, biting residents and even knocking out electricity by slithering onto power lines.
More than 3,000 miles away, Hawaii environmental officials have long feared a similar invasion — which in their case likely would be a “snakes on a plane” scenario. That would cost the state many vulnerable species and billions of dollars, but the risk will fall if Guam’s air-drop strategy succeeds.
“We are taking this to a new phase,” said Daniel Vice, assistant state director of U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services in Hawaii, Guam, and the Pacific Islands. “There really is no other place in the world with a snake problem like Guam.”
Brown tree snakes are generally a few feet long but can grow to be more than 10 feet in length. Most of Guam’s native birds were defenseless against the nocturnal, tree-based predators, and within a few decades of the reptile’s arrival, nearly all of them were wiped out.
The snakes can also climb power poles and wires, causing blackouts, or slither into homes and bite people, including babies; they use venom on their prey but it is not lethal to humans.
The infestation and the toll it has taken on native wildlife have tarnished Guam’s image as a tourism haven, though the snakes are rarely seen outside their jungle habitat.
The solution to this headache, fittingly enough, is acetaminophen, the active ingredient in painkillers including Tylenol.
The strategy takes advantage of the snake’s two big weaknesses. Unlike most snakes, brown tree snakes are happy to eat prey they didn’t kill themselves, and they are highly vulnerable to acetaminophen, which is harmless to humans.
The upcoming mice drop is targeted to hit snakes near Guam’s sprawling Andersen Air Force Base, which is surrounded by heavy foliage and if compromised would offer the snakes a potential ticket off the island. Using helicopters, the dead neonatal mice will be dropped by hand, one by one.
U.S. government scientists have been perfecting the mice-drop strategy for more than a decade with support from the Department of Defense and the Department of the Interior.
To keep the mice bait from dropping all the way to the ground, where it could be eaten by other animals or attract insects as they rot, researchers have developed a flotation device with streamers designed to catch in the branches of the forest foliage, where the snakes live and feed.
Experts say the impact on other species will be minimal, particularly since the snakes have themselves wiped out the birds that might have been most at risk.
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,”
After 30 years of protecting native animals and plants, the head of Hawaii’s agricultural inspection operation leaves behind a short-handed and beleaguered team today, worried that invading species are slipping into the islands.
“Shipments are backed up but are still being inspected. That’s the good part,” said Domingo Cravalho Jr., who is retiring as inspection and compliance section chief for the state Department of Agriculture. “Because of the lack of resources and lack of inspectors and the reduction in the amount of good inspections, things are getting through. …
“It’s overwhelming at times and some individuals may be overlooking things or bypassing things. Under the circumstances, we just don’t have enough eyes and ears out there.”
WAILUKU – Bring a flashlight to a workshop on Wednesday arranged to teach residents how to locate the invasive brown tree snake, which has overwhelmed parts of Guam.
Mayor Charmaine Tavares’ office, the state Department of Agriculture and Division of Forestry and Wildlife along with the Maui Invasive Species Committee are hosting the free event from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Kahului Community Center annex, at 275 Uhu St.
Live snakes and other prohibited species will be on display, and participants are asked to bring a flashlight for use in a snake-detection exercise that uses dummy snakes.
The session also will provide information about the snakes, including their biology and behavior and why people should be concerned about their possible introduction here. A key part of the meeting will involve what to do and whom to contact if a snake were sighted.
These beautiful winged animals were all over this island.
Then, the brown tree snake entered and changed our ecosystem forever. Most of the birds that were found only on Guam will never be seen again. They are gone forever because of one invasive animal.
Christmas opens the door for more invasive animals to show up on Guam.
Last week employees at Cost-U-Lessfound a tree frog that wasn’t supposed to be on Guam hiding in a Christmas tree. The poor little frog didn’t know he was doing anything wrong. He was just hiding.
His presence on the Christmas tree brings up a very real threat to Guam’s environment. Any time a new animal enters the ecosystem, it has an impact.
Agricultural groups fear state layoffs will backlog shipments
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Sep 08, 2009
Agricultural industry executives worry that Hawaii businesses will wither on the vine and incoming food will rot on the docks if the state goes through with massive layoffs of agriculture inspectors.
Plans call for laying off 50 of the state’s 78 agriculture inspectors, 64 percent of that specialized work force.
Diminished inspection capacity could also cost hundreds of millions of dollars each year if additional invasive species get established, industry officials say.
State inspectors both certify products to be exported out of Hawaii and inspect food and plants being imported into the state.
KAHULUI – Environmentalists and farmers lashed out Thursday night at the announced layoffs of state agricultural inspectors, arguing that the move planned by the Lingle administration would uproot efforts to preserve the island’s agricultural industry and pristine environment.
Close to 100 people turned out at a Senate Ad Hoc Committee meeting held in the Maui Waena Intermediate School cafeteria. The crowd applauded those who spoke against the layoffs, some even attacking Gov. Linda Lingle.
From Jeffrey Parker and Masako Cordray Westcott of the Hawaii Agriculture & Conservation Coalition
Emergency Senate Hearing on the Dept of Agriculture layoffs – please testimony today!
Thursday, Sept 3rd, 5-9pm, Maui Waena School, 795 Onehee Ave, Kahului