Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Mississippi Concerned About Burmese Pythons

The following story was posted on the ClarionLedger.com web site today.

Constrictors seen as threat in state
Molly Parker • mparker2@jackson.gannett.com • October 26, 2010

An area lawmaker is eyeing Florida's python problem and wondering if Mississippi should take action to keep nonnative snakes from being released into the wild - intentionally or accidentally."Here comes a tornado, hurricane and these animals get loose, then they're in neighborhoods and somebody's dog, cat or somebody's child gets hurt," said Rep. Earle Banks, D-Jackson. Banks said he doesn't know examples of this happening in Mississippi, "But the point is we don't want this." Banks said he plans to push legislation, as he did last session, that would require the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to create a nonnative reptile program and outlaw the release into the wild of snakes and other creatures that are not indigenous to Mississippi. "You can have a 20-foot snake in your house if you want, but what happens if you don't want it? We don't want these reptiles released into the woods and lakes," he said. Banks said he's also working with the Jackson Zoo. But Mississippi snake expert Terry Vandeventer of Byram said Banks' push is fanning panic."We already have a law. The state already has a state regulation of the release of animals into the wild," Vandeventer said. Banks said a ban isn't necessary but wants stricter guidelines on exotic pets. This year, Florida banned individuals from owning Burmese pythons and six other large, exotic reptile species. Pythons have wreaked havoc on delicate ecosystems in south Florida's Everglades National Park. A hunting season was opened last year. In 2009, a Burmese python killed a 2-year-old Florida girl. Human deaths, however, are rare. Justin Ables, owner of The Jungle Exotic Pets and Live Bait in Florence, said he sells a few Burmese pythons "but not a ton." But worrying about Burmese pythons is unwarranted, he said."Here in the wild, they are not going to breed," Ables said. Research is mixed on whether pythons could breed in central Mississippi. A 2009 U.S. Geological Survey on nine constrictor snakes found most of Mississippi, excluding the northern tip, to be a potentially suitable habitat for the Burmese python, said Gary Ervin, associate professor of biological sciences at Mississippi State University."These things represent a predator that we just don't have here and a potentially serious ecological threat because it would be something our native species simply would have no adaptation for dealing with," said Ervin, who studies the impact of nonnative plants on the ecosystem. But Vandeventer, who travels to schools and other venues for snake education, said the study has been disproven "over and over again by reputable scientists. "He (Banks) has been influenced by this shock stuff and that's very clear," Vandeventer said. This winter's freeze killed most of the Burmese pythons in the Everglades, he said, and they wouldn't make it through a Mississippi winter. Ervin also doubted the python's chances to flourish here, and pointed to another paper published this year that followed the success of Burmese pythons in South Carolina. "They found that ones that didn't burrow and try to hibernate died by freezing temperatures," he said. Still, Ervin said he supports Banks' initiative. "I think those sorts of laws are certainly helpful, and there are cases where I wish we had more of that legislation dealing with invasive species in general," he said.As an example, Ervin mentioned Kudzu, a problematic plant in young pine plantation and for utility companies, yet introduced by humans with good intentions decades ago to stabilize the soil and as a cattle forage. Wendy Purvis, owner of The Fish Bowl in Ridgeland, said she doesn't keep Burmese pythons in her store. But Purvis said she will order them for responsible snake handlers.Otherwise, Purvis said she educates people who don't understand what they're getting into. "The snake gets 20 feet long. You have to have a dedicated room and quite a bit of money. They're expensive to feed, and you'll eventually have to move to rabbits," she said. Purvis said putting regulations on the books about how to handle an unwanted snake is a good idea. "They won't survive that first winter," she said. "It would be just like leaving a cat behind when you move for someone else to take care of."

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