WASHINGTON, DC, January 20, 2010 (ENS) – The Burmese python and eight other large constrictor snakes that threaten the Everglades and other sensitive ecosystems could be classified as “injurious wildlife” under the Lacey Act, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced today.

The Burmese python, which can reach a length of 19 feet, and these other alien snakes are destroying some of our nation’s most treasured and fragile ecosystems, the secretary said.

Many large constrictor snakes are popular as pets and there is a large domestic and international trade in the animals. When released into the wild by disenchanted pet owners, the snakes find warm, wet Florida ecosystems to be comfortable habitats.

The nine species proposed for listing as injurious are: the Burmese python, northern African python, southern African python, reticulated python, green anaconda, yellow anaconda, Beni or Bolivian anaconda, DeSchauensee’s anaconda, and boa constrictor.

Over the past 30 years, about a million snakes of these nine species have been imported into the United States, and current domestic production of some species may exceed import levels, wildlife officials estimate.

The Interior Department and states such as Florida are taking action to control and eliminate wild populations of these snakes, but it is difficult in ecosystems where they have no natural predators. Burmese pythons and other large constrictor snakes adapt easily to new environments and are opportunistic in expanding their geographic range, wildlife officials warn.

For successful control, officials have concluded that the importation of these snakes and interstate commerce and transportation of them must be stopped.

U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Water and Wildlife Subcommittee, today praised Secretary Salazar for the listing proposal.

“Invasive species like these pose serious threats to native species across the country and can have a severe impact on America’s natural ecosystems, as well as our agriculture, economy and human health,” Senator Cardin said.

Senator Cardin chaired a legislative hearing in December and a more extensive hearing in July to examine the threats of invasive species that he says heard “dramatic testimony and evidence … on the dangers these snakes pose.”

In December, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a bill authored by Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, to ban the nine species of giant constrictor snakes. The measure now goes to the full Senate for a vote.

Nelson says he introduced the bill last February at the request of federal park officials concerned about the number of pet snakes being abandoned in places like the Florida Everglades.

While Cardin is working with Nelson to pass the legislation he says it is important that the Department of Interior continue its traditional listing process “so that we can be sure our communities and wild places will receive the protection they deserve.”

On the House side, Congressman Kendrick Meek, a Florida Democrat, has filed a bill similar to Nelson’s.

The U.S. Geological Survey issued a risk assessment report last October that highlighted the threats posed by these snakes to Florida ecosystems.

The USGS assessment found three of the nine species are reproducing in the wild in Florida, with population estimates for Burmese pythons in the tens of thousands spread across thousands of square miles in south Florida.

Burmese pythons threaten rare species and other wildlife. For instance, two Burmese pythons were found near Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and the remains of three endangered Key Largo wood rats were found in their stomachs.

A population of boa constrictors is established south of Miami and wildlife officials say recent evidence suggests a reproducing population of northern African pythons on the western boundaries of Miami.

“This report clearly reveals that these giant snakes threaten to destabilize some of our most precious ecosystems and parks, primarily through predation on vulnerable native species,” said Dr. Robert Reed, a coauthor of the risk assessment and a USGS invasive species scientist and herpetologist.

Of the nine large constrictors assessed, five were shown to pose a high risk to the health of the ecosystem, including the Burmese python, northern African python, southern African python, yellow anaconda, and boa constrictor.

The remaining four large constrictors – the reticulated python, green anaconda, Beni or Bolivian anaconda, and DeSchauensee’s anaconda – were shown to pose a medium risk.

More than 1,200 of the snakes have been removed from Everglades National Park since 2000, with others having been removed from the Florida Keys, along Florida’s west coast, and farther north along the Florida peninsula.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to class the nine snake species as “injurious” will be open to public comment before a final decision is made. If adopted, the listing would prohibit importation and interstate transportation of all nine species.

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