Categorized | Agriculture, Environment, Featured

Big Island workers get hands on training with Guam’s Brown Tree Snakes


Gurney Amore and Shawn Okumura holding a large snake.

It was one of the first evening classes since arriving in Guam. Suddenly there was a snake, just six inches away, tongue out, staring coldly into his eyes. Raymond McGuire, Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife’s coqui control coordinator, later realized his work capturing coqui frogs on the Big Island had helped him spot the Brown Tree Snake (BTS) which can be nearly invisible outdoors.

McGuire was one of nine Pacific island-based personnel, including several from Hawaii Invasive Species Committees, sent to Guam for a three-week training led by James Stanford, BTS rapid response coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey.

According to Page Else, Big Island Invasive Species Committee public outreach specialist, the impact of the Brown Tree Snake — which first invaded Guam in WWII — has been very costly to that island territory’s economic, ecological and social environment. She added it would cause similar problems for Hawaii.

The first night in the field, a small snake bit into Okamura's leather glove.

“These snakes are frequent flyers and somehow know to crawl into airplane wheel wells or cargo holds. Without constant airport inspections, Hawaii is sure to be infiltrated,” Else said recently. “Snake populations would rapidly establish in Hawaii, with rats, mice, birds and lizards as plentiful food sources. The threat is even more of a concern now due to the military base buildup on Guam and the current constraints on government budgets.”

Christy Leppanen, until recently the Honolulu-based state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ invasive species specialist, is the newly appointed Invasive Species Biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This summer, she will be moving to Saipan to make sure, as Leppanen tells it, “the Brown Tree Snake doesn’t make it to Hawaii.”

Leppanen joined McGuire and Shawn Okumura of the Big Island Invasive Species Committee in the BTS training in Guam. McGuire and Okumura said they felt the training was worthwhile, although arduous. The students received daily classroom instruction in the mornings and four hours each night of field training in finding and capturing the BTS.

Okamura and his large snake

During the evening field session, the participants entered snake enclosures full of vegetation and trees to count the number of snakes. Initially, McGuire found it hard to coax himself to grab the snakes without hesitation. The duration of three weeks’ training helped him conquer that challenge. He learned to use the snakes’ scales and coloring as cues. The BTS’s scales shimmered in the light and sometimes – but not always – their eyes shined. BTS can vary in color from olive to dark brown and the older snakes often have yellow bellies.

By the end of the three weeks of training, McGuire had caught 15 snakes with hand tools and many more in traps. Okumura earned the record for most hand-captured snakes in one evening: seven.

Trapped BTS were bad-tempered, according to McGuire. Each participant was responsible for 10 traps that they checked every other day. The density of Guam’s BTS population became apparent as the group captured 70 snakes from a three-acre parcel one night, only to return two days later and capture another 60.

Working in teams of two, the participants learned to maneuver the snakes without frightening them, coaxing them onto branches where they could be captured. One trick they were taught was to thump a tree to get the BTS to descend from the upper branches.

Raymond McGuire pulling a snake out of his trap.

According to the trainer, BTS are only mildly venomous and are not aggressive in the wild but quickly realize when they are being hunted. For children, a bite can result in a hospital visit but adults are usually not affected, the trainer said.

Okumura and McGuire deliberately allowed themselves to get bit, to make sure they were not allergic. “It didn’t hurt, even though the snakes try hard and chew strongly,” McGuire reported.

Obviously, the BTS is a potential threat to Hawaii’s environment but it is not the only reptilian threat, according to Else. Other snake species have been smuggled into Hawaii, despite it being against the law to do so. “Many people do not understand the impact snake populations could pose to our economy and ecosystems,” Else said. “It is illegal to bring a snake into the state but there have been over 300 credible snake sightings in the past 25 years, with only 100 recovered.”

The BIISC representative in Hilo said that designated state and federal employees continue to train and guard Hawaii against invasion by snakes and other biological threats. “We’re glad to have our ‘snake warriors’ ready to protect our island,” she said.

She then urged anyone who spots a snake to immediately call the Big Island Invasive Species Committee hotline at 961-3299 or the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife at 974-4221.

One Response to “Big Island workers get hands on training with Guam’s Brown Tree Snakes”

  1. David says:

    This just blows my mind. This is an absolute tragedy and I feel like people don’t understand it. Hawaii is the *only* place in the world where you can (could?) let your kids run free without worrying about them dying from a snake bit. If unchecked, snakes could absolutely ruin Hawaii.

    The penalties ar a joke — they should raise the penalty to 1 million dollars and 10 years in prison, including a lifetime ban from the state of Hawaii. If Hawaii wants to get serious about snakes, they have to get serious about penalties. Continue to offer amnesty to those who voluntarily turn their pet snakes in, of course.

    Trust me — if snakes over, Hawaii is done.


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