St. Croix Needs Snake Hunters

*Correction – see note at end.*

Boa constrictors have a price on their heads on St. Croix. Industrious Crucians can collect a bounty on each snake brought in — a summer job for those who don’t mind staring down nine-foot-long reptiles, wildlife experts said Tuesday.

An invasive red tail boa collected by Department of Planning and Natural Resources’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. (Photo: Department of Planning and Natural Resources)

Boa bounty killing could even be a cottage industry, said Sean Kelly, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Planning and Natural Resources’s Division of Fish and Wildlife on St. Croix. Boas under four feet fetch $50, and longer ones net bounty hunters $100, according to U.S. Virgin Islands law.

A decade or more ago, pet red-tail boas got loose on the island, and now they’re a problem, Kelly said. Some invasive species, like most iguanas in the territory, are more nuisance than harmful. Others, like lionfish, rats, and giant tree snakes, are considerably more damaging to the wildlife that’s supposed to be in the Virgin Islands.

Goats and deer, for example, were brought to the islands to feed early colonists. But when left roaming free they can eat their way through vital habitat and specific food sources for native species. Mongoose, imported to kill rats, have chewed through many native reptiles, at one point driving the harmless, and relatively tiny Virgin Islands boa to endangered species status, Kelly said.

“Our islands are kind of inundated with invasive species,” Kelly said. “Mongoose and dogs are threatening and attacking endangered sea turtles and their nests.”

The task of managing these invasive species is too big for any one branch of government, he said, leading to the creation of the bounty program in 2021.

Eligible bounty hunters must register and pay a $25 fee, then learn how to properly kill the snake, so it is brought to Planning and Natural Resources for scientific study — with its stomach contents and head intact. They must also take a class on what species to hunt and which to leave alone. The Virgin Islands boa — also known as the Mona Island boa — is protected by law. Only the red tail boa is eligible for the bounty and only on St. Croix.

The Senate allocated $10,000 for the program, but there is no cap listed in the law. If someone can haul in more than 100 four-foot one-inch snakes, the Senate may have to make a special provision. In 2016, a St. Croix biologist caught 30.

Editor’s note: This has been updated to correct the bounty prices and the reason mongooses were imported.