by Whit Gibbons

March 15, 2009

Some members 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."

The brown 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.

Admittedly, 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 scientists.

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.

The evolution 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.

They have 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.

Presumably, 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 of science.

Overspending 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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