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Fighting a Threat to Birds

To some people, a Burmese python is repulsive. To others, it is a good example of adaptive evolution. To still others, it is a welcome pet—until it grows too large and an owner releases it into the wild. To Florida’s avifauna, it is a deadly scourge.

More than two dozen bird species, one of them the endangered Wood Stork, have been found in digestive tracts of pythons collected in Everglades National Park. (See News and Notes in Birding, July 2011, pp. 24–27.) Wildlife experts in Florida have been gravely concerned for many years about this non-native snake’s population explosion and its increasing ecological damage. Burmese pythons are prolific breeders, they fit perfectly into South Florida’s habitats, and they—at least, as adults—have no wild enemies.

Burmese Python in captivityA new step toward fighting the threat is on the way. Effective on March 23, 2012, it will be illegal to import the Burmese python (Python molurus bivittatus) into the U.S. and to transport it between states. The prohibition also covers the Indian python (P. molurus molurus), the northern African python (P. sebae), the southern African python (P. natalensis), and the yellow anaconda (Eunectes notaeus). Penalties for violation include up to six months in prison and fines as high as $5,000 for individuals or $10,000 for organizations.

In 2006, the South Florida Water Management District petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the python as an injurious species under the federal Lacey Act, which would prohibit its importation and interstate transportation . After six bureaucratic years, the Service agreed and formally enacted the ban in February with publication of a Final Rule in the Federal Register.

Under the new federal law, most people who already own any of those species will be allowed to keep them if possession is allowed by state law. Florida allows current owners to keep them, but the state bans bans importing, selling, or swapping them and other large constrictors as personal pets.

Banning imports is one thing. Trying to eradicate the uncounted thousands of Burmese pythons that already infest Florida is another matter. Considering these long-lived snakes’ breeding productivity and the difficulty of hunting them down, we have to wonder whether eradication will ever be possible.

The new federal ban does not end the story. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to list five other exotic snakes as injurious in the wild: reticulated python, boa constrictor, DeSchauensee’s anaconda, green anaconda, and Beni anaconda. These are not yet serious threats at the Burmese python’s level, and the idea is to ensure that they don’t become threats in the future.

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