- Interior Department announces ban on importing four non-native snake species
- Pythons are a serious problem in the Everglades, where they kill endangered native species
- The snakes are believed to be pets that escaped or were released
- Ban should be in place by March; felony violation could bring five-year prison sentence
The United States is banning the importation of four species of snakes and their eggs, the Interior Department announced Tuesday.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the ban -- which covers the Burmese python, the northern and southern African pythons, and the yellow anaconda -- at a news conference at Everglades National Park in South Florida, where non-native snakes have become a serious problem.
Park officials called the announcement a great first step for the park's ecosystem.
"We are very happy to see this finally in place," said park spokeswoman Linda Friar. "The python has continued to be an increasing challenge in management and we are hoping this will help us get a better handle on this species."
The biggest threat to the park is the non-native Burmese python. It is believed that the snakes were originally pets that found their way into the park. The Everglades, known as the river of grass, is a vast area with a climate perfect for the pythons to hide and breed. And breed they do: The largest clutch found in the Everglades was 83 eggs.
"We think there are tens of thousands of snakes (in the park)," said Friar. The snakes prey on native wildlife such as the endangered Key Largo wood rat and the endangered wood stork. The largest prey, Friar said, was a 76-pound deer that was found in the stomach of a 16-foot python a few months ago.
The ban will not affect people who currently own these four species of snakes, other than prohibiting the transportation or selling of the animals across state lines.
The ban should be in place by the end of March, when the snakes will be included under the Lacey Act. The act is designed to stop illegal trafficking of specified wildlife, fish and plants. A felony violation of the Lacey Act can bring a five-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.
Although the ban should put a stop to additional pythons entering the country, officials say it will not solve the snake problem in the Everglades. "We still have to look at improved management and removal to better protect our habitat," Friar said.