U.S. to air­drop toxic mice on in­va­sive snakes in Guam

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY ERIC TAL­MADGE

an­der­sen air force base, guam — Dead mice laced with painkillers are about to rain down on Guam’s jun­gle canopy. They are sci­en­tists’ pre­scrip­tion for a headache that has caused the tiny U.S. ter­ri­tory mis­ery for more than 60 years: the brown tree snake.

Most of Guam’s na­tive bird species are ex­tinct be­cause of the snake, which reached the is­land’s thick jun­gles by hitch­ing rides from the South Pa­cific on U.S. mil­i­tary ships shortly af­ter World War II. There may be 2 mil­lion of the rep­tiles on Guam now, de­stroy­ing wildlife, bit­ing res­i­dents and even knock­ing out elec­tric­ity by slith­er­ing onto power lines.

“We are tak­ing this to a new phase,” said Daniel Vice, as­sis­tant state di­rec­tor of U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s Wildlife Ser­vices in Hawaii, Guam and the Pa­cific Is­lands. “There really is no other place in the world with a snake prob­lem like Guam.”

Brown tree snakes are gen­er­ally a few feet long, but they can grow to be more than 10 feet in length. Most of Guam’s na­tive birds were de­fense­less against the noc­tur­nal, tree-based preda­tors, and within a few decades of the rep­tile’s ar­rival, nearly all of them were wiped out.

The snakes use venom on their prey, but it is not lethal to hu­mans.

The in­fes­ta­tion and the toll it has taken on na­tive wildlife have tar­nished Guam’s im­age as a tourist spot, though the snakes are rarely seen out­side the jun­gle.

The so­lu­tion to this headache, fit­tingly enough, is ac­etaminophen, the ac­tive in­gre­di­ent in painkillers such as Tylenol.

The strat­egy takes ad­van­tage of the snake’s two big weak­nesses. Un­like most snakes, brown tree snakes are happy to eat prey they didn’t kill them­selves, and they are highly vul­ner­a­ble to ac­etaminophen, which is harm­less to hu­mans.

The up­com­ing mouse drop is tar­geted to hit snakes near Guam’s sprawl­ing An­der­sen Air Force Base, which is sur­rounded by heavy fo­liage. Us­ing he­li­copters, the dead neona­tal mice will be dropped by hand, one by one.

U.S. government sci­en­tists have been per­fect­ing the strat­egy for more than a decade, with sup­port from the De­fense and the In­te­rior de­part­ments.

To keep the mice from fall­ing all the way to the ground, where they could be eaten by other an­i­mals or at­tract in­sects as they rot, re­searchers have devel­oped a flota­tion de­vice with stream­ers de­signed to catch in the branches of the for­est fo­liage, where the snakes live and feed.

Ex­perts say the im­pact on other species will be min­i­mal, par­tic­u­larly be­cause the snakes have them­selves wiped out the birds that might have been most at risk.

The mouse drop is set to start in April or May.

Vice said the goal is not to erad­i­cate the snakes but to con­trol and con­tain them.

ERIC TAL­MADGE/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Wildlife spe­cial­ist Tony Salas holds a brown tree snake out­side his of­fice on An­der­sen Air Force Base, near the site of the mouse drop.

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