Snakes in the grass on Maui?

Wildlife scientists getting training while on the lookout for potentially devastating reptile

Fern Duvall (DLNR/DOFAW) with ball python from Maui
Fern Duvall, wildlife biologist with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, holds up a 3-foot ball python trapped in the garage of a Makawao home on Sept. 18. He said that while only one of about a half dozen reported snake sightings produced a real reptile, at least two of the canefield sightings are believed to be very credible.

Following a rash of snake sightings on Maul this summer, some wildlife scientists are worried that a wild population of snakes may be established here.

The concern has prompted the creation of a plan to conduct weekly nighttime searches of the sugar cane fields where several snakes reportedly were seen.

"It's a shot in the dark, but it's probably the most effective thing we can do now," said Fred Kraus, the state's alien species coordinator.

The joint agency effort comes in the wake of at least five reports of snakes during a one-month period in August and September, with one of the incidents resulting in the capture of a 3-foot hall python in the garage of a Makawao home. In addition, at least one snake sighting was reported since then --- last week in Makawao - and rumors of- others have circulated as well.

Scientists warn that an established snake population could wreak enormous ecological damage in Hawaii. Iindeed, the devastating effects of the brown tree snake on Guam are well documented, with the island's bird population having been devastated, among other problems.

But the notorious brown tree snake isn't the only snake that threatens Hawaii and its birds. According to Kraus, several hundred snake species are capable of causing brown tree snake-proportion ecological damage -- and possibly at a faster rate.

Kraus, a specialist in reptiles hired last year to head up brown tree snake prevention in Hawaii, conducted training sessions on Maul in August in an effort to teach local wildlife officials how to respond to and capture brown tree snakes.

The sessions, attended by a couple dozen Maul wildlife officials, featured searches for rubber snakes hanging in trees and on fence posts under the darkness of night.

Just before one of the training sessions was set to begin, officials received a call about a snake in a cane field near Pulehu Road, and the training was instantly transformed into a real search.

During the unsuccessful search, another report came in about a snake sighted in a cane field near the Haleakala Highway. Officials that night also learned about another snake sighting the week before in a cane field on the other side of Haleakala Highway.
snakes on Maui
Snake sightings were reported in five locations in August and September. Only one call produced a live snake, a 3-foot ball python that was cornered in a Makawao Avenue garage on Sept. 18.

The next week, a snake was reported in the Kalama Hill area of Makawao, and less than three weeks later, on Sept. 18, a 3-foot ball python was cornered in the garage of a Makawao Avenue home.

Fern Duvall, wildlife biologist with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said that while only one of the incidents produced a real snake, at least two of the cane field sightings are believed to be credible.

On the other hand last week's snake sighting in Makawao was deemed to be less credible, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

Duvall and U.S. Geological Survey scientist Lloyd Loope met Thursday with Earl Campbell, a U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist from Hilo who has been working with the Hawaii Commercial & Sugar Co. to help control rats on the 37,000-acre plantation in Central Maul. Campbell, who wrote his doctoral thesis based on study of the brown tree snake in Guam, volunteered his expertise last week to teach Duvall and Loope how to conduct nighttime road surveys for snakes.

Campbell explained that rats in the cane fields could serve as a food source to support a snake population, while the network of irrigation ditches could provide the moisture they need.

At Thursday's meeting, Duvall and Loope committed to the weekly vehicular snake searches on cane haul roads near the snake sightings and decided to continue them for at least the next three months. The plan calls for one search a week, three to four hours at a time.

A plantation spokesman said the company fully supports the effort. Employees have been told to watch out for snakes as well. Loope and Duvall acknowledged that the chances of seeing a snake in what would surely be a snail population is slim but it's worth it.

"If there is just a 5 percent chance of a snake being out there, we're more than willing to do this" Duvall said. "We're very serious about this."

Kraus said if any snake is found it likely would be a python or boa constrictor, based on the sighting descriptions. These species are common pets on the Mainland and have been intercepted by inspectors at Hawaii airports on numerous occasions.

Kraus said boas and pythons are among the snake species that are just as much a threat to Hawaii as the brown tree stake. Like brown tree snakes, they are active at night, hang out in trees and have wide-ranging diets that include birds, he said. Kraus said the ecological damage from these snakes could come even more swiftly. While the brown tree snake has a clutch size of between four and 12 young, he said, python and boa clutch sizes range from 30 to 100.

The state has recently developed a detailed protocol on how to respond to brown tree snake sightings, Kraus noted, but there is no such plan for other snakes and vertebrate pests. In fact, the agency responsible for intercepting these pests, the state Department of Agriculture, doesn't have the resources to respond to all snake sightings in cane fields, forests or other undeveloped areas, or to conduct follow-up mapping or investigations after the snakes are captured or if initial capture attempts are unsuccessful.

The Department of Agriculture is responsible for intercepting alien species at ports of entry such as the Kahului Airport and Kahului Harbor, but there are only seven inspectors covering three islands in Maul County, and they have other duties as well.

Officials said Maul's agricultural inspectors rely on DLNR personnel for help, but that agency also lacks adequate staffing.

The Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species (CGAPS), a coalition of private and government agencies in Hawaii, has proposed that six positions be established within DLNR's Division of Forestry Wildlife to carry out detection, control and eradication of snakes other harmful pests that have eluded the state's first line of defense. estimated cost would be $410,00 (first year and $260,000 annually subsequent years. Alan Holt, deputy director of Nature Conservancy of Hawaii leader of CGAPS, said something must be done to bolster the first line of defense -- and soon.

The state, he said, isn't even able to inspect all of the flights coming Hawaii from Guam.

"The bottom line is that unless significant improvements are made, it's only a matter of time before (snakes and other aliens) become established," Holt said.

State inspectors captured 32 snakes and nearly 100 other illegal reptiles and amphibians in Hawaii in 1994 alone.

More recently, the alien species issue has vaulted to the forefront a debate over the proposed Kahului Airport expansion. The recent s sightings can only augment the augment of critics who fear that increased air traffic will bring even threats to Maul's environment.

If you see a snake call the Department of Agriculture's Plant Quarantine Branch at (808) 873-3555, or call Duvall at the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife Baseyard at (808) 871-2929.

The Maui News - 23 November 1997 (pp. 1 & 7)
story by Maui News staff writer Timothy Hurley
photo by Maui News staff photographer Eugene Tanner
(article and images used with permission)

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This page is a product of the Hawaii Ecosystems at Risk Project, copyright (c) 1998 Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii (article text retains original copyright; posted on with permission of the author). This page was created on 11 February 1998 by PT, and was last updated on 11 February 1998 by PT.