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News Clippings

(July 7, 1998) by Gary Strieker 

Brown tree snakes now may number more than 2 million on Guam 

The birds of Guam have been silenced by the brown tree snake, and authorities fear the reptile could wreak more havoc if it spreads to other Pacific islands and the U.S. mainland. 

The snake has decimated Guam's bird population after arriving sometime after World War II, probably stowing away in a shipment of military cargo from New Guinea or the Solomon Islands. 

The brown tree snake population is now estimated at more than 2 million on Guam. Besides hunting birds, the snakes cause frequent power outages by climbing utility poles. 

Because the snakes are nocturnal, most people, including thousands of tourists who visit the island, have never seen them. 

But some have found these mildly venomous snakes in their homes, sometimes trying to eat sleeping children. 

The snakes have been found in homes, some trying to eat young children 

"I looked at his crib and he had the snake's tail wrapped around his neck, and the snake's head wrapped around his leg, and he was busy, 10 months old, holding on the crib, trying to pull the snake off him," said Ernie Matson, the boy's father. 

Wildlife can't defend against snake
However, the snake usually avoids humans and instead prowls the forests to feed on wildlife that evolved here without any defenses against a predator like this. 

The Guam rail, a flightless bird unique to the island, is one of nine species of birds on the island hunted to extinction in the wild by the snake. A few captive Guam rails remain, however, and authorities hope to reintroduce the species to the island. 

"I think of all the endangered species on Guam, the Guam rail has the best chance for recovery in the near future," said Kelly Brock of the Guam Department of Agriculture. 

However, island authorities must be able to fence off a small zone of snake-free forest sanctuary for the Guam rail to survive. Success will depend on using barriers effective against a snake that seems able to climb almost anything. 

Almost all the island's Mariana crows are gone, and only a small colony of fruit bats evaded the snake in a remote hideout. Tens of thousands of fruit bats once lived on the island, dispersing seeds and pollinating the island's forests. 

Authorities fear snake could migrate
In Guam, the damage is done. But authorities fear the snake could migrate to other Pacific islands where biologists say it could cause more ecological disasters. 

"Really, people don't understand what this animal is capable of doing," said Mike Pitzler of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

There are even fears the snake could migrate to Hawaii and the U.S. mainland and cause harm to bird populations there. 

"Anywhere around the Gulf Coast, Florida, the Carolinas, Alabama -- they'd be quite happy and you'd never get them out of there," said Michael Kuhlman of the Guam Department of Agriculture. 

The U.S. government has launched a major effort to prevent the snake from leaving Guam, spending more than $1 million a year on the project. 

Traps and barriers surround the island's airport and seaports, where authorities fear the snake could migrate by hiding in shipments of cargo leaving Guam. 

Snake-detecting dogs
Authorities say some snakes have already been found inside airport perimeters in Hawaii, Texas and Spain. 

Dogs trained to detect snakes give nearly all the outbound cargo in Guam a final check before loading. 

"Stuff (where) a person would have a hard time visually detecting a snake, this is where the dogs really shine," said Dan Vice of the USDA. 
But not all cargo is inspected, and control officers say they are doing the best they can. 

"You cannot just guarantee 100 percent," said Anthony Techaira of the USDA. 

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