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Federal officials move to ban imports of nine species of constrictor snake

January 21, 2010 |  3:21 pm

A boa constrictor sits in its cage during a press conference at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar speaks announced a proposed ban on bringing Burmese pythons and eight other kinds of large snakes in the country, saying they threaten the environment.

NEW YORK — Federal officials want to keep nine kinds of constrictor snakes out of the United States, saying they belong to invasive species that pose the single biggest threat to the nation's environment.

"This is the story of the invasion of the snakes in the United States of America," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday, standing near a live python at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

He said the Burmese python and the other "alien snakes" are destroying some of the nation's most treasured -- and most fragile -- ecosystems.

New York is the biggest point of entry in the U.S. for imported wildlife, the secretary said. The ban covers any kind of import of invasive snakes into the U.S.

In 2009, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Inspectors at Kennedy handled more than 27,000 wildlife shipments valued at more than $1 billion, or 16% of all U.S. wildlife imports.

Last year, 54,000 live reptiles entered through the New York airport.

The proposed ban covers nine species of giant constrictor snakes including the Burmese, North African and South African pythons, the boa constrictor, and the anaconda -- green, yellow and Bolivian, as listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

About 1 million such snakes have been imported in the last 30 years and more have been bred domestically.

The snakes are popular as pets but destructive when released into the wild, especially in sensitive ecosystems like Florida's Everglades National Park and the Florida Keys. Having no natural predators, the adaptable snakes feed on alligators and other imperiled species whose remains have been found in their stomachs.

"This is an important day for conservation in the United States," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Sam Hamilton.

He joined Salazar at a news conference in a Kennedy customs warehouse where the live python was on display along with an intercepted collection of snake skins.

Teams opened and examined shipments of snakes and other animals, wearing gloves and using crowbars to open crates containing potentially dangerous creatures.

The ban proposal will be open to public comment for 60 days before a final decision is made.

An invasive species can be any kind of nonnative living organism that causes harm.

The legislation to ban the snakes was introduced in Congress by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.).

The Burmese python thrives in South Florida and there are boa constrictors south of Miami. Recent evidence suggests that northern African pythons are reproducing on the city's western boundaries.

Hamilton said he hopes the nine snake species will soon join the list of illegal wildlife trafficking that includes poisonous snakes.

At Kennedy, inspectors handle all snakes as if they were poisonous, in case the documents accompanying them don't match the wriggling goods packed in sacks inside wooden crates.

More than 169,700 shipments of wildlife and wildlife products entered the country last year, with an estimated value of $2.7 billion.

-- Associated Press

Photo: A snake wriggles in its cage during Wednesday's press conference.  Credit: Seth Wenig / Associated Press

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