WASHINGTON — The monstrous snakes that have invaded the Everglades and gobbled up some of its endangered wildlife are Florida's problem, not cause for a nationwide ban, some Republicans in Congress declared on Thursday.
Their staunch opposition greatly diminishes the chances that Congress will approve a bill to broaden the ban on invasive snakes that was proposed by U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Tequesta, and supported by proponents of Everglades restoration.
Opponents cited evidence that these snakes die in cold weather and cannot move farther north to threaten other parts of the country. They said a nationwide ban on importation and interstate sales would thwart pet owners and pinch the livelihoods of sellers and breeders.
"Florida is handling a Florida problem that only exists in Florida," U.S. Rep. John Fleming, R-La., chairman of the House subcommittee on fisheries and wildlife, told witnesses at a hearing on Thursday.
The chairman mocked testimony that Burmese pythons have rebounded from cold snaps, have killed several young children and could thrive in parts of Texas, Louisiana, Puerto Rico and semitropical U.S. territories. He also dismissed warnings that global warming will increase the range of deadly snakes and other invasive species.
"I think the worry, the threat, that in the next few years we're going to have reptiles on our doorsteps in Washington, D.C., is a little overblown," Fleming said.
A Florida member, U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, dismissed the proposed ban as "a solution in search of a problem." He said the bill amounts to an egregious attempt by an overbearing government to rein in helpless small businesses, jeopardizing a $1.4 billion reptile industry.
"I'm dumbfounded," Southerland said. "We got bigger fish to fry here than to target businesses. It's open season on businesses. It's open season on enterprise, on freedom."
With as many as 100,000 snakes infesting the Glades, the U.S. Interior Department already has issued an administrative rule to ban importation and interstate sales of the Burmese python, northern and southern African python and the yellow anaconda.
Rooney and Everglades promoters hope to put that ban into law and expand it to include five more species: the reticulated python, boa constrictor, DeSchauensee's anaconda, green anaconda and Beni anaconda.
Environmentalists say these snakes kill endangered wildlife in Florida and undermine a multibillion-dollar restoration of the Everglades.
"If we are trying to restore the ecosystem for wading birds adapted to the Everglades and we have invasives countering those measures, that's a big problem," Julie Hill-Gabriel, director of Everglades policy for Audubon Florida, said after the hearing.
She also warned that widespread publicity about pythons and other snakes in the Glades have discouraged tourism.
"We have some people no longer willing to visit because they are just afraid," Hill-Gabriel said. "The world knows the Everglades have a snake problem, and we need to show we are taking action."
The current ban and proposed expansion would not solve the immediate problem, which is how to eradicate the estimated 30,000 to 100,000 invasive snakes already in the Everglades.