The Florida Everglades teems with wildlife. Until relatively recently, alligators were king. They eat just about everything.
Today, even gators succumb to huge exotic snakes. Released into the wild by irresponsible collectors and pet owners, giant constrictors have climbed atop the Everglades' food chain. These snakes can weigh more than 100 pounds grow to almost 20 feet in length.
When released into the sub-tropical Everglades, big snakes thrive. Today, experts estimate that more than 10,000 pythons inhabit the Everglades. They eat everything from great blue herons to alligators and deer. In a recent study of the stomach contents of 56 Burmese pythons captured in or near Everglades National Park, 50 had eaten multiple species of birds including white ibis, limpkins, king rails and clapper rails.
Efforts are now underway to eliminate these snakes from the Everglades, but finding them is truly like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. So it's welcome news that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finalized a rule that will ban the importation and interstate transportation of four nonnative constrictor snakes that threaten the Everglades and other sensitive ecosystems across the United States.
The rule, which incorporates public comments, economic analysis, and an environmental assessment, lists Burmese pythons, yellow anacondas and northern and southern African pythons as injurious to wildlife under the Lacey Act (the federal law that governs the trafficking of wildlife).
"The Burmese python has already gained a foothold in the Florida Everglades," Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said in a statement. "We must do all we can to battle its spread and to prevent further human contributions of invasive snakes that cause economic and environmental damage."
I suspect reptile collectors will protest this rule, but their track record speaks for itself. Regulations restricting the ownership and sale of large invasive snakes have become an ecological imperative.
"By taking this action," USFWS Director Dan Ashe said, "we will help prevent further harm from these large constrictors to native wildlife, especially in habitats that can support constrictor snake populations across the southern U.S. and in U.S. territories."
Reaction from conservation groups to the new rule has been positive. "In recent years, the release of nonnative snakes into sensitive bird habitats such as the Florida Everglades has reached epidemic proportions," said George Fenwick, president of American Bird Conservancy, the nation's leading bird conservation organization. "Unwitting individuals are buying these animals only to later realize they can't keep a six-foot-long snake in their homes. They dump them in the wild, where they breed and feed on native birds and other wildlife."