Sen. Nelson pleads to constrict killer pythons in Florida

From Chinese mitten crabs in Chesapeake Bay to the Coqui tree frog in Hawaii, exotic creatures have overrun America from sea to shining sea.

But no state faces a bigger, scarier threat than Florida — a point made abundantly clear during a Senate hearing Wednesday on the nation’s losing battle to slow the spread of invasive species.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson delivered a vivid show-and-tell to lawmakers, unrolling the skin of a Burmese python killed in Everglades National Park, all 17 feet of it. Then he explained in graphic detail how a pet python half that size strangled a toddler in her crib last week in a town northwest of Orlando.

“It’s just a matter of time before one of these snakes gets to a visitor in the Florida Everglades,” Nelson told a Senate panel examining an invasive surge that poses increasingly expensive threats to native wildlife, crops, livestock and people.

Gregory Ruiz, a senior scientist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, estimated that exotics already have cost the United States $100 billion a year. He called current efforts to control and eradicate exotic creatures “a patchwork” in need of a major overhaul. It was a view echoed repeatedly during the two-hour hearing in Washington, D.C.

Federal agencies charged with combating the invaders acknowledged they’ve been overwhelmed by thousands of species, many arriving in the bilge water of sea-going freighters but also coming in as pets, clinging to produce or sneaking in through other pathways.

Nelson, a Democrat from Melbourne who filed a bill to ban Burmese python imports in February, said he had asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to “do something about” the giant constrictors for three years.

“They have not,” Nelson said. “They have said they’re studying it.”

Gary Frazer, an assistant director for the service, said current laws give wildlife managers limited authority.

He said they can issue emergency orders to protect endangered native species but not to declare animals like the python “injurious,” a classification that would halt most imports. That requires rule-making that strains the agency’s resources. “It is process-laden and cumbersome,” Frazer said. “It has taken us, in many cases, several years to add a species to the list.”

The hearing, broadcast on the Internet, clearly put the emergence of Burmese pythons, snakehead fish and other damaging exotics on Congress’ radar screen. But it also showed lawmakers and federal agencies remain far from developing a national plan for what is widely viewed as the most cost-effective solution: stopping problem species before they get into the wild.

One proposal would target a common entry point, forcing cargo ships to install systems designed to destroy aquatic invaders in bilge or ballast water. But Nelson’s bill and a broader one aimed at identifying and banning the import of high-risk, non-aquatic species face formidable opposition from the pet trade, breeders and hobbyists who argue the vast majority of imports pose no threats.

There’s also the question of how much good banning pythons would do with the snake already thriving in South Florida. Everglades National Park biologists, who have documented the snakes breeding and eating everything from full-grown deer to alligators, estimate 150,000 live within park boundaries alone.

That has prompted Florida’s wildlife commission, which already requires python owners to pay an annual fee and register and micro-chip pets, to consider offering a bounty on snakes killed in the wild.