Keeping snakes off the planes!

Snakes could drive endangered birds to extinction

HONOLULU — The Defense and Interior departments are chipping in $2.9 million to rescue a program preventing an invasive snake species from hitchhiking rides from Guam to Hawai‘i and other warm climates on cargo ships and planes.

Congressional earmarks for years paid to control brown tree snakes, a reptile native to Australia and the Solomon Islands that has eaten to extinction nine out of 11 forest birds on Guam since it was accidentally introduced there after World War II.

Scientists fear the snakes would wipe out Hawai‘i’s many endangered birds if they became established in the 50th state.

Even so, the program was on course to be canceled on Friday — the last day of the current fiscal year — after Congress abandoned earmarks this year. The prospect had alarmed those in Hawai‘i who try to prevent invasive species from harming the state’s fragile environment, and who are already having a harder time doing their jobs because of state budget cuts.

But The Associated Press learned the program got a last-minute reprieve when the Interior and Defense departments last week signed agreements to fund it for the next nine months. The Pentagon is contributing $2.4 million, and Interior is pitching in $500,000.

“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 Hawai‘i, Guam and Pacific Island state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s wildlife services section.

The departments are only committing to nine months of funding because they are concerned by the cost at a time when all parts of federal government are grappling with budget cuts. They’re expected to discuss how to continue the program for the last quarter of the fiscal year and beyond.

Pitzler said Thursday 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-Arizona, 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 that the Pentagon pay to screen for the snakes. The program not only protects warm climates like Hawai‘i 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.

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