TREE SNAKES NEED TO BE EARMARKED
March 15, 2009
of Congress decry spending federal money for research and environmental
protection. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) has singled out a $657,000 project
in the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act titled "Brown Tree Snake Management
in Guam." I called his office to ask why he was opposed to the study.
I was told that "Senator DeMint is against all earmarks." He
wants a completely "merit-based system," and the current earmark
system allows funding projects inserted by members of Congress "with
no review or public debate."
tree snake bill was characterized as pork-barrel spending. But the brown
tree snake is the paragon of an invasive species that has caused severe
problems on Guam and could become a devastating environmental factor if
allowed to become established in Hawaii or even Florida. I made this point
six years ago when critics in Congress attacked a federal program to keep
the brown tree snake out of Hawaii.
I do not understand how our congressional fiscal system really works (clearly
I am not alone in this sea of ignorance), but how is a research project
on Guam snakes supposed to be funded? Being "against all earmarks"
may make a good sound bite, but it may cause significant harm to the environment.
This particular environmental research project represents a trivial proportion
of the federal budget. (Overspending on wildlife issues is not now nor
has it ever been a national problem. Would that it were.) I know these
researchers personally and professionally. They have proved their scientific
merit, and their published works have been extensively reviewed by other
As to the
brown tree snake, one of the reasons for the studies is to understand
their ecology on Guam; another is to understand their overall ecology
lest the snake become established in Hawaii or Florida. Why do we need
this knowledge? Because this insidious invasive species has had dramatic
negative effects on the ecology of the natural systems of Guam. The brown
tree snake, found naturally throughout the Australian and Indonesian regions,
was unintentionally introduced to Guam, presumably during World War II.
It has become a serious threat to native wildlife and has caused power
blackouts (note: we have military bases on Guam) by crawling into transformers.
of natural defenses is a key biological principle underlying success or
failure of invading species. The birds of Guam, having evolved in a situation
with no significant predator on nests or young, have been demolished by
the introduced brown tree snake. Brown tree snakes are constrictors with
vertical pupils, rear fangs and mildly venomous saliva, and a disproportionately
large head. Snakes over nine feet long have been found on Guam, and one
government report estimates there are as many as 13,000 of these invaders
per square mile.
devastated much of Guam's wildlife. Guam's native forest birds have been
declared "virtually gone," and at least a dozen known only on
Guam are now extinct because of brown tree snake predation. The Hawaiian
Islands fit the Guam model in having birdlife that has never been exposed
to snake predators. Hawaii's ecology could be severely altered if brown
tree snakes became established. Some funding has gone toward monitoring
cargo going from Guam to Hawaii to be certain a brown tree snake has not
become a passenger. More needs to be directed toward ecological research
on the brown tree snake.
Sen. DeMint is not simply against government-funded research of any sort;
he may be a staunch supporter of NASA, NSF, and EPA research programs.
But on a broader stage, new discoveries set the foundation for education.
So voting against research is in one sense saying, "we already have
enough knowledge and should not encourage acquiring more." Micromanaging
research is not the way to reestablish ourselves as a country on the forefront
on wildlife issues, through earmarks or any other means, does not cause
government budget deficits. When people seek ways to save tax dollars,
they do not have to look far. But eliminating funding that increases environmental
knowledge will make no appreciable difference in the budget and may have
devastating effects on the environment. Sometimes, earmarks are the only
way to get worthy projects funded.
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