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. Just as the snakes found their way to Guam, they could stow away on a ship, or more likely the cargo hold of an airplane, and begin breeding on other islands around the Pacific or even the US West Coast.
That “snakes on a plane” scenario has officials in Hawaii on edge. The islands of Hawaii, like Guam, lack the predators that could keep a brown tree snake population in check.
Native Hawaiian birds “literally don’t know what to do when they see a snake coming,” said Christy Martin, a spokeswoman for the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species, a partnership of Hawaii government agencies and private organizations.
A 2010 study conducted by the National Wildlife Research Center found brown tree snakes would cause between US$593 million and US$2.14 billion in economic damage each year if they became established in Hawaii like they are on Guam. Power outages would cause the most damage, followed by a projected decline in tourism. The cost of treating snake bites would account for a small share.
“Once we get snakes here, we’re never going to be able to fix the situation,” Martin said.
Though the snakes are native to Australia and Papua New Guinea, Guam is much closer to Hawaii and its snake population is much more dense, meaning it is the primary threat for snake stowaways.
So far, Guam’s containment seems to be working. Only a few brown tree snakes have ever been found in Hawaii, and none over the past 17 years.
“If we continue doing what we are doing, the chance of success is very high,” Vice said. “If what we are doing stops, I think the possibility of the snakes getting to Hawaii is inevitable.”