The federal government branded the Burmese python, infamous for swallowing a smorgasbord of Everglades critters from rabbits to gators, a serpent non grata on Tuesday.
The action, which will ban the import and interstate sale of the python and three other giant exotic constrictors, was hailed by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson as a milestone for Everglades protection.
"It does us no good to put in these billions of dollars in investments in the Everglades only to have these giant snakes come and undo all the good we are doing," said Salazar. He announced the decision during a news conference along Tamiami Trail near an ongoing $80 million bridge project that is key to restoring natural water flow in the Everglades.
The reaction was less enthusiastic from environmental and animal welfare groups. They contend the Obama administration watered down a more sweeping proposal that would have declared nine giant constrictors "injurious species,'' bowing to pressure by the pet industry and Republican lawmakers who branded the measure a job-killer based on shaky science.
The White House, after reviewing the proposal for more than a year, opted to put five of the species on hold for further study. That includes the boa constrictor, one of seven snakes designated by federal scientists as "high-risk'' for spreading in the wild but also the most popular and valuable snake in a market that reptile breeders claim is worth $100 million a year.
"The snakes that were excluded pose a serious threat to our already fragile ecosystems and to humans,'' said Peter Jenkins, an attorney for the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species. "If your boat is leaking, why would you only plug some of the holes?''
Critics contend the administration was sold — as Bruce Stein, an associate director of the National Wildlife Federation put it — "a bottle of snake oil'' by a cottage industry that overinflated its economic value and whose products could cost millions of dollars to control if they thrive in the wild like the Burmese python.
But Salazar and Nelson, a Democrat from Melbourne, defended the action, saying the four snakes that will be banned — the Burmese python, two species of African python and the yellow anaconda — represented the most "clear and present danger'' and were at the highest risk of spreading beyond South Florida.
Biologists estimate there are now thousands of Burmese pythons in the Everglades, where they prey on native wildlife and pose a serious threat to the natural balance of a complex system. North African rock pythons and at least one yellow anaconda also have been pulled from lands bordering the Glades.
The remaining snakes that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed for an "injurious species'' listing under the Lacey Act — the boa constrictor, reticulated python, green anaconda, DeSchauensee's anaconda and Beni anaconda — haven't shown up in large numbers in the Glades, though boas have been found in the Deering Estate in south Miami-Dade.
Salazar didn't rule out adding more snakes to the list after further study but acknowledged that economic impacts were "part of the dialogue.'' He said the ban was an important first step that "struck the right balance'' between environmental protection and "not suffocating commerce by over-regulation.''
Still, the decision was at least a partial victory for reptile breeders and collectors, who have fought the proposal since it was introduced in 2005. Backed by Republican lawmakers, they mounted a lobbying and letter-writing campaign that tapped into antiregulatory sentiments in Washington. They argued that the tropical snakes pose little risk beyond South Florida and that the restrictions amounted to "job-killing'' red tape.
David Barker, a Texas-based breeder and python expert who testified against the proposed ban in one congressional hearing, said he was "pretty pleased.''
"We were told over and over again that we were just going to have to sit down and take it,'' he said. "I think this acknowledges, directly or indirectly, that this is an industry that makes money.''
The boa alone, he said, accounted for as much as 90 percent of the value of the constrictor trade, with rare color morphs developed by breeders fetching upward of $20,000 each.
Last year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission effectively banned personal ownership of Burmese pythons and seven other constrictors as pets, though it grandfathered in snakes whose owners had obtained $100 annual licenses and implanted them with microchips before July 2010.
Vernon Yates of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation in Seminole has seen his fair share of abused and neglected snakes. He knows what happens when people take in creatures they're unable to care for. But a ban on Burmese pythons, or any other kind of snake, isn't going to prevent people from owning them, he said. "I oppose this on the basis of bans don't work. And it's like closing the barn door after the cow's gone," he said. "It's stupidity."
He said the government should focus its efforts on strict enforcement and legal punishments for people who abuse animals or set foreign species free into the environment. "You want to stop animals from suffering? Find attorneys and judges that are willing to put people in jail for what they do," he said. "Setting an animal free is a form of abuse, not to mention what it does to the environment. If Grandma's parakeet flies out the window, Grandma should have to pay for it."
Times staff writer Marissa Lang contributed to this report.