State bringing back canine snake detectors

Published On: Jun 21 2012 05:13:10 PM HST   Updated On: Jun 21 2012 05:23:50 PM HST

After a nearly three year lapse, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture is bringing back canine units capable of detecting the brown tree snake, which if established in Hawaii would devastate the state's fragile ecosystem.

"What this really does is enable us to get our guys back on board," said HDOA Chairman Russell Kokubun. "We need to have dogs, the handlers, and the trainer; that's really what makes up the program."

The rebirth of the canine detector program was made possible last week after Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed a bill into law that sets aside $162,540 for the hiring of one inspector-trainer and three dog handlers. The handler teams will primarily look for brown tree snakes coming from Guam, both on commercial and military flights.

The dog detector program was allowed to lapse in July, 2009 due to budget cuts, as Hawaii and the rest of the world dealt with a severe economic downturn.

Visual inspections for brown tree snakes continued at Honolulu International Airport and Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in the interim, but Domingo Cravalho Jr., an invasive species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said nothing beats a canine's ability to sniff out the troublesome reptiles.

"The canine inspections are a much more efficient way of clearing cargo and aircraft," said Cravalho. "They're a proven method; they're doing it in Guam (and) it should be here in Hawaii as well."

For the state, it's a race against the clock to get the program up and running in order to qualify for a federal matching fund from the Office of Insular Affairs. The dog detector program must be operations before the end of the year in order to receive another $162,000.

"Going through all the training and all the actual implementation does take a while," said Kokubun, "but this program is so important to the state, we'll get it up and running as soon as we can."

The former dog detector program used beagles to sniff out brown tree snakes; however the new program will switch to Jack Russell terriers, a much more voracious snake detector.

"They're a very hard-working breed of animal and they have a high energy drive, and that's what you need for a detector dog," said Carvalho.

State funds for the new snake detection program won't be released until July 1. It will then take 14 weeks to properly train a new inspector-trainer, and another 10 weeks to train the three handlers.

Domingo believes it will be a challenge to continue the program without the matching federal funds, but he believes the state will meet the end-of-the-year deadline.

"Hopefully the federal proposal will be accepted," he said.

The brown tree snake has already wiped out nine native species of birds on Guam and is responsible for power outages. The snakes have also been known to attack infants and small children.

"That could happen easily here in the state of Hawaii," said Cravalho.


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