The Virgin Islands has a problem with snakes in the bushes and probably always will, according to Jean-Pierre Oriol, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
Oriol testified to the Senate Committee on Government Operations, Consumer Affairs, Energy, Environment and Planning Monday as it discussed a bill to raise penalties for those illegally importing certain species.
Agriculture Commissioner Positive Nelson also testified, saying, “The territory has seen an infestation of snakes because of illegal importation and then their subsequent release.” He said the present infestation probably intensified when Hovensa closed and many workers left the island but decided not to take their snakes with them.
Oriol said action has to be taken quickly to stop an invasive species from becoming entrenched in the environment. A case in point was the brown snake in Guam. He said the U. S. Department of Interior spent more than a billion dollars trying to eradicate that snake from that territory, but it has not worked.
CBS News reported the brown snake is an “ecological horror story.” Two million brown snakes reportedly are thriving on the 210-square-mile territory of Guam.
While the problem is much smaller in the Virgin Islands, no one is certain how much smaller. Fish and Wildlife biologist William Coles, who has been the face of the combat against invasive species on the islands for almost two decades, was not at the hearing and data was not available for how many snakes were being caught or what was being done with them once they were caught.
Sen. Kenneth Gittens said he was upset that Coles was not at the hearing. Sen. Javan James said he heard so much about Coles that he thought he was “like a superhero” of snake catching.
Oriol testified that Coles was absent due to federally mandated training he had to attend. However, it was noted that the public, through comments Coles had made on the radio, knew that Coles believes the present leadership at DPNR was hampering him in the performance of his duties.
The absence of Coles at the hearing was one of the reasons the committee decided to hold the bill they were considering until another hearing that Coles could attend. The bill would increase the penalty for the illegal importation of snakes and animals or species not indigenous to the Virgin Islands, “which could pose a threat to the ecosystem of the Virgin Islands and the people of the Virgin Islands.”
“While we are in support of the measure being offered, we would propose that a comprehensive look at the issue of invasive, nuisance and nonindigenous species be completed,” Oriol testified.
Sen. Alicia Barnes said she did not feel the urgency from the testifiers she felt the snake infestation deserved.
“We have a fragile ecosystem here,” she said, and it needs protection. She said the snakes were “all over the west end of St. Croix” and she had seen a photo of one on Rainbow Beach.
Guam reportedly has not given up on its snake problem. The CBS report said scientists were looking to create a virus that would only be deadly to the snake.
Another bill discussed Monday and held in committee for amendments concerned the transfer of the V.I. Labor Management Committee into a division within the Public Employees’ Relations Board. Sen. Allison DeGazon said she saw the merger as a way to save the government money and streamline its services. Sen. Gittens agreed. He called it a “model bill that makes practical sense.”
Attending the hearing were Sens. Barnes, Marvin Blyden, DeGazon, Novelle Francis Jr., Stedmann Hodge Jr., Gittens, Myron Jackson, James and Athneil Thomas.