The Florida Everglades teems with wildlife. Until relatively recently, alligators were king. They eat just about everything.
Today, however, even gators succumb to huge exotic snakes. Freed by irresponsible collectors and pet owners, giant constrictors have climbed atop the Everglade's food chain. These snakes can weigh more than 100 pounds grow to almost 20 feet in length.
When released into the sub-tropical Everglades, big snakes thrive. Experts estimate that more than 10,000 pythons inhabit the Everglades. They eat everything from great blue herons to alligators and deer. In a recent study of the stomach contents of 56 Burmese pythons captured in or near Everglades National Park, 50 had eaten multiple species of birds including white ibis, limpkins, king rails and clapper rails.
Efforts are now underway to eliminate these snakes from the Everglades, but finding them is difficult. So it's welcome news that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finalized a rule that will ban the importation and interstate transportation of four nonnative constrictors that threaten the Everglades and other sensitive Southern ecosystems.
The rule, which incorporates public comments, economic analysis and an environmental assessment, lists the Burmese python, the yellow anaconda and the Northern and Southern African pythons as injurious to wildlife under the Lacey Act (the federal law that governs the trafficking of wildlife).
"The Burmese python has already gained a foothold in the Florida Everglades," Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said, in a written statement. "We must do all we can to battle its spread and to prevent further human contributions of invasive snakes that cause economic and environmental damage."
I suspect reptile collectors will protest this rule, but their track record speaks for itself. Regulations restricting the ownership and sale of large invasive snakes have become an ecological imperative.
The new rule will become effective 60 days after its publication in the Federal Register. It will take years to undo the damage that has been done in the Everglades, but this is a step in the right direction.
And for the approximately 1 million tourists who will visit the Everglades this year, these giant snakes are just one more reason to stay on the trails and boardwalks.
Scott Shalaway is a biologist and author. His other weekly Post-Gazette column, " Wildlife ," runs Sundays on the outdoors page in Sports. Shalaway can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com , and 2222 Fish Ridge Rd., Cameron, WV 26033.