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Jungle Beat: Snakes on Planes Threaten Hawaii

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Hawaii is often called the "endangered species capital of the world" because we have more plants and animals that are in danger of extinction than any other place on Earth. More than one-third of all the threatened and endangered birds in the United States are found only in Hawaii.

Today we have the opportunity to speak up and prevent the introduction of a dangerous species of snake that has invaded Guam. The brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis or BTS) is native to the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and Australia and arrived in Guam via military transport around 1950. It now numbers up to 10,000 per square mile in some locations. Reaching eight to 10 feet in length, this troublesome reptile has nearly wiped out Guam's bird populations (nine of 12 species of native birds are extinct) and causes, on average, one power outage every three days when it slithers up power poles and shorts the lines.

These snakes are mildly venomous and sometimes crawl into cribs, where they bite infants. Several of these attacks have led to respiratory arrest, but not death. Budget cuts have threatened these programs, due to the cost of military activities in the Middle East and elsewhere. On Oahu, the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture inspects planes and ships that arrive from Guam. So far, fortunately, these programs have been successful.

Economic Repercussions Would Be Severe

Experts warn that if just one pregnant brown tree snake were introduced to Hawaii, she could begin a colonization that could prove disastrous to Hawaii's environment and our tourist-dependent economy, according to the Hawaii Ecosystems at Risk website. Like Guam, Hawaii has suitable habitat and food for this snake, and relatively few predators exist that might control it. No, the introduced mongoose would not be able to take care of these snakes, according to the USGS website.

Hawaii doesn't have snakes (yet) because of laws prohibiting their entry and also because of interdiction programs on Guam and Oahu that check aircraft and ships, including cargo. But this snake is very crafty and at least eight have been found on Oahu since 1981, after hitching rides to Hawaii in the wheels and undercarriages of airplanes.

Experts Believe the Snake Will Arrive

"I can say with 100 percent certainty that this snake will arrive in Hawaii again," stated Christy Martin, Public Information Officer for the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species (CGAPS). "We can reduce the chances if we demand that the interdiction procedures continue at the level that's necessary, and if we resume the State's detector dog program at our end -- anything else is gross negligence."

The Department of Defense spends two million dollars per year on anti-snake programs on Guam. Budget cuts have threatened these programs, due to the cost of military activities in the Middle East and elsewhere. On Oahu, the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture inspects planes and ships that arrive from Guam. So far, fortunately, these programs have been successful.

But a major threat looms: closure of military bases on Okinawa will send approximately 24,000 Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force troops and their dependents to Guam by 2014. There will be many more flights into and out of Guam, both military and commercial. Martin added, "Guam's infrastructure is inadequate... it's only 212 square miles. There's no hospital that can serve that many people. Many building materials will be shipped from Hawaii, and when they're no longer needed, they'll be shipped back. Imagine how many cranes (which look like a big tree to a snake), bulldozers, and all other forms of equipment that will need to be checked for hitchhiking snakes."

Martin went on to state, "It is not currently required that conveyances leaving Guam be searched for BTS. This means that USDA Wildlife Services has to really do their homework on who the freight forwarders are, what their schedules are, and be there in the hopes that they can inspect. Second, the Office of Insular Affairs [under the Department of the Interior] foots the bill for inspections and trapping around commercial ports and freight forwarders. The DoD pays for these services on military conveyances."

New Funding Offers New Hope

On August 27, 2013, the Saipan Tribune reported that OIA authorized grant funding of $250,000 to Guam for the Division of Fish and Wildlife's Brown Tree Snake Program, under the Department of Lands and Natural Resources. The BTS is a threat to other Pacific Islands as well: the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) has 200 flights from Guam every month and authorities there are concerned about native bird populations and other damage that has already occurred on Guam. The Saipan Tribune article states, "It is critical that the program remains fully functional to prevent economical, public health, and environmental impacts as a result of the introduction of the brown tree snake to the CNMI."