State regulators reaffirm support for Burmese python rules meant to protect native wildlife in Georgia
This story was updated at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023.
State regulators rejected a push from an advocacy group representing reptile enthusiasts to reconsider new rules adopted last year that restricted ownership of Burmese pythons.
The 2022 change was meant to head off any potential threat to native wildlife in Georgia. Originally from Southeast Asia, the Burmese python has devastated marsh rabbits and other species in the Florida Everglades, likely after being accidentally or intentionally released.
As a result, importation and breeding of the Burmese python is no longer allowed. Existing snakes are allowed to stay with their owner, so long as they have been tagged with a radio-frequency tracker and registered with the state by Dec. 4.
The U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers petitioned the Georgia Board of Natural Resources to rethink the ban on breeding through a rarely used maneuver allowed under the panel’s rules.
They argued the rule was based on a misunderstanding of the snake’s ability to survive on its own in Georgia and only hurts responsible pet owners, and they say the broad restrictions will cost the state’s eight or so vendors hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“We’re a big industry. It’s almost $4 billion in the entire U.S.,” Phil Goss, the association’s president, said to the board Tuesday. “There are people in the state who are working with this species and will be affected by this.”
Goss said the Burmese python cannot tolerate Georgia’s winters and the sub-50-degree weather. But Brett Albanese, assistant chief of the state agency’s wildlife conservation division, said the Burmese python’s inability to live through the winter here is far from certain.
The Burmese python might one day find south Georgia more tolerable due to climate change or could hunker down in animal burrows – or other uncertain factors could enable the species to overcome the odds, Albanese said.
“We agree there’s significant uncertainty on when or where Burmese pythons can become established in Georgia. We hope they never do,” he said.
“Natural resource managers often have to make decisions in the face of uncertainty,” he added. “If Burmese pythons ever became established in any part of Georgia, or even if individuals survived for long enough periods between hard freezes, we are confident they would harm wildlife through predation, competition and transmission of disease.”
Albanese said the risk of spreading disease that can be harmful to native Georgia snakes, like the threatened indigo snake, ranked high on his list of concerns. Disease can be spread by loose snakes or simply by a pet owner throwing out the snake’s waste.
An 11-foot-long Burmese python was found a decade ago in Charlton County and unnervingly close to the Okefenokee Swamp.
“As this board is aware, the Okefenokee Swamp is currently facing pressure from other man-made threats, such as mining,” said Alex Muir, a law student at Georgia State University, who spoke against the association’s request Tuesday. “Acquiescing to the pressure of the exotic pet trade will only add to the list of industries that threaten to damage the integrity of the swamp, which fuels the local economies of multiple South Georgia communities.”
The association’s petition was filed last week and unanimously denied Tuesday.
“Our decision was not taken lightly. We understood the genuine affection that some people have for these and other animals that were being affected,” Chairman Dwight Davis said Tuesday. “But we had to listen to the recommendations of staff and what they were saying, and the risk was there.”
The association’s attorney, Emily Ward, said afterwards that her client was disappointed. Specifically, the group had hoped the state agency would change the rules to allow existing Georgia vendors to be grandfathered in.
“Sadly, those businesses must now choose to either lose their significant personal and financial investments or relocate their families and businesses to another state,” she said. “USARK hopes a dialogue can be established with Georgia DNR going forward to ensure the voices of responsible owners, traders, and scientists are considered before the Georgia DNR enacts regulations affecting the environment, these animals, and the people who devote their lives to them.”
For more information on the rules for keeping a Burmese python or other regulated reptile, visit the Department of Natural Resources website.
An earlier version of this story misidentified Emily Ward.