HR 511 Part Two: The Truth About the Everglades and Heroes of the Subcommittee Hearing

By Erika N. Chen-Walsh

Part One of this series discussed the background of HR 511 and the falsified junk science upon which it is based.  Part Three dispels other myths and propaganda about constrictor snakes.

The HR 511 Subcommittee Hearing of November 29, 2012

cap-reflecting2The U.S. House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs held a legislative hearing on HR 511 on November 29, 2012.  (The hearing in its entirety can be viewed online here.)  Andrew Wyatt had originally been invited to supply all four opponent witnesses to testify against HR 511 in the Subcommittee hearing. However, in the two weeks prior to the hearing, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (“PIJAC”) became interested in the issue and asked to provide an opposition witness as well.  The final witness panel included the following (each witness’s written testimony is linked to their name):

In opposition to HR 511:

Dr. Brady Barr
Resident Herpetologist,
National Geographic Society and
Dangerous Encounters
Geographic Channel

Shawn K. Heflick
The Python Hunters
National Geographic Channel

Andrew Wyatt
President and Chief Executive Officer
United States Association of Reptile Keepers

Colette Sutherland
“The Snake Keeper”
Spanish Fork, UT

In support of HR 511:

John Kostyack
Vice President
National Wildlife Federation

Peter Jenkins
Executive Director
National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species

Opening Remarks from the Hon. John C. Fleming (R-LA), Subcommittee Chair

Chairman Fleming demonstrated an immediate understanding of the issues and a genuine concern for the economy and the protection of small businesses, stating, “I have concerns that H.R. 511 will end up destroying hundreds of small businesses without providing any real benefit to the Everglades.”  He further noted that HR 511 now seeks to “go far beyond the recommendations of the South Florida Water Management District, the State of Florida and the Fish and Wildlife Service.”  Chairman Fleming delivered a thorough and accurate history of issues surrounding constrictor snakes and the Lacey Act, and herpetoculturists owe a debt of gratitude to Chairman Fleming for his thorough and thoughtful analysis of the issue.

Pythons in the Everglades

Dr. Brady Barr, Resident Herpetologist, National Geographic Society, expressed frustration at the amount of misinformation being Barr-Sutherland-Heflickdisseminated to the public and clearly explained, as a PhD in the field of reptiles, why pythons cannot survive beyond the southernmost tip of Florida, stating that,

“The snake species referenced in this hearing are native to tropical regions of the planet, whereas the Southern Everglades is a sub- tropical climate characterized by seasonal temperature fluctuations and more extremes. These tropical snakes do not possess the behavior and physiology to tolerate cold temperatures. Low temperatures (below 15 degrees C.) result in these snakes having problems digesting prey, acquiring prey, avoiding predation, moving, essentially surviving. Furthermore, these snakes lack the innate behavior to seek refugia at the onset of cold weather conditions, resulting in quick death or a compromised immune system in which the snake ultimately succumbs. Climate data reveal that temperatures found in Southern Florida simply are not conducive to the long term survival of large tropical snakes. When it gets cold, these snakes die.” (Emphasis added.)

This opinion was echoed by Shawn Heflick, a biologist with a Masters Degree on invasive species in Florida. Heflick has traveled the world capturing and studying pythons, anaconda and boas on five continents.  He is a licensed Python Agent for both the Everglades National Park and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and he is the Host of National Geographic WILD’s series, The Python Hunters, which explores the conservation issues of reptiles around the globe and educates people about their plight.

Heflick described a study he conducted with collaboration from the USDA, APHIS and FWS ith permitting from Florida Wildlife and Conservation Commission, which included both Boa constrictor and Burmese Pythons. Within just four days, 100% of the specimens in the study had died due to exposure to the cold.  (Jacobson et al. 2012.) Heflick testified that the wild Burmese python population has not expanded beyond south Florida and further, that it is on the decline, due to massive die-offs in 2009/2010, rendering population numbers lower than ever before.

Colette Sutherland, of The Snake Keepers, also testified that her snake breeding business had suffered severe adverse consequences due to the fear that Boa constrictor would be added to the Lacey Act list of injurious species.  Animals for which she had paid $25,000 per pair, she was unable to sell.  Sutherland and her husband ended up euthanizing 60 adult boas because of the market collapse caused by bills such as HR 511.

Brady-WyattAndrew Wyatt, president of USARK, testified about both economic impact and the fallacy of pythons thriving outside of southern Florida.  Wyatt cited a new study published in Integrative Zoology, “Environmental temperatures, physiology and behavior limit the range expansion of invasive Burmese pythons in southeastern USA,” by Jacobson et al., which is a collaboration by University of Florida, USDA and real python experts.  It is a peer reviewed paper confirms what other studies have also demonstrated: “…[I]t appears unlikely that the Burmese pythons inhabiting the Everglades will be capable of expanding or becoming established far beyond southern Florida”.  Wyatt referenced at least four other cold weather studies from the University of Florida, USDA Wildlife Services, Savannah River Ecological Lab and Vida Preciosa International that refute the USGS projections.

Wyatt offered compelling testimony, citing the Georgetown Economic Services (GES) report on “The Modern US Reptile Industry” in 2011. According to GES, listing these nine constricting snakes on the ‘Injurious Wildlife’ list of the Lacey act would cost small businesses as much as $104 million in the first year and much as $1 billion over 10 years. This action has been opposed by the US Chamber of Commerce, The Small Business Administration (SBA) Office of the Advocate, Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), PIJAC and USARK.

Proponents of HR 511, including but not limited to the Humane Society of the United States (“HSUS”), the Natural Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species (“NECIS”), and the National Wildlife Federation (“NWF”) promote misinformation about pythons in the Everglades.  The testimony of both Peter Jenkins and John Kostyack relied heavily on information from HSUS.

Kostyack testified that, “Giant constrictors are top predators in the south Florida ecosystem. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), they are voracious and indiscriminate consumers of native wildlife and can grow rapidly to more than 20 feet in length and 250 lbs in weight.”  Using the typical hyperbole of the animal rights industry, Kostyack ignored the fact that the largest feral Burmese python in U.S. history was captured in August 2012, measuring in at 17.7′.

Jenkins, also following the HSUS mantra, testified about an “excellent new report by the Humane Society on Constrictor Snake Incidents,” which stted that reticulated pythons “are known as particularly “vicious,” prone to unprovoked attacks and in their native ranges are reported as “man eaters” more so than any other species of snake.”  Jenkins provided no reference for his inflammatory rhetoric.  Jenkins went on to try to take issue with the GES report cited by Wyatt about the economic impact of reptiles in the US.  Notably, Jenkins failed to offer any evidence to refute it.

Ranking Minority Member Gregorio Kilili Sablan (D-Northern Mariana Islands) expressed concern about the risk of large constrictors becoming a problem in the island territories.  Representative Madeleine Z. Bordallo (D-Guam) expressed concern over the problem of the brown tree snake in Guam.

However, perhaps Representative Steve Southerland, II (R-FL) summed it up best, when he stated that HR 511 is “a solution looking for a problem.”

Chairman Fleming concurred, stating that, “Florida is handling a Florida problem that exists only in Florida . . . our Federal Constitution created a government in which the rights of the federal government would be limited and all other powers would go to the states.”

Herpetoculturists in the U.S. need to make their voices known in a respectful and professional way.  Please commend Chairman Fleming and Representative Southerland on their intelligent treatment of this issue, which is being driven hard by ideologues who believe that reptiles should not be kept as pets under any circumstances.

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