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Eradicating Everglades Pythons Will be a Formidable Task
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently announced that the National Park Service and other federal agencies will be stepping up efforts to eradicate Burmese pythons from the Everglades. If this can be done, and that’s a very big if, it will take teamwork, technology, hard work, and good luck.
When a pet Burmese python got loose and killed a Florida toddler asleep in her bed last month, the spotlight of national media attention shone brightly on a development that has alarmed wildlife managers and public safety officials in South Florida. The Burmese python, a big, non-native snake with a well-deserved reputation for being ecologically disruptive and dangerous, has become well-established in the Everglades and the South Florida urban periphery. By some estimates, there are at least 100,000 free-roaming pythons in the Everglades already. Left unchecked, this population will swell to many times its present size.
That’s most emphatically not a good thing. Because pythons can grow very large (up to 20 feet or so) and will eat virtually any creature smaller than they are, they have the potential to wreak havoc on the Everglades ecosystem, especially the Water Conservation Areas, Everglades National Park, and Big Cypress National Preserve. Examinations of python stomach contents have revealed the remains of mice, cotton rats, wading birds, possums, raccoons, small alligators, and deer.
Pythons pose a lethal hazard to pets, smaller livestock, and people. Dogs and cats are routine fare wherever the snakes can get at them. And as the tragic death of that little girl showed last month, even a relatively small python (this particular one was only around eight feet long) can kill a child. By the time a python reaches maturity at around 12 or 13 feet, it is quite capable of squeezing the life out of an adult human. A 20-footer is one of the more lethal killing machines that nature has ever devised.
Small wonder that federal officials have decided to put python eradication on the fast track. Historians of the future will surely ask why it took so long. Significant numbers of Burmese pythons were already on the loose in South Florida by the mid-1990s. Some pet pythons went free in the chaos of Hurricane Andrew (1992). Many others escaped from inadequate enclosures or were intentionally released by owners who no longer wanted them.
Now pythons are breeding rapidly and colonizing new areas in South Florida. The question is how to kill them in large enough numbers, and quickly enough, to lessen their impact and slow their spread.
Let’s be honest about this. Eradication is much too strong a word for the end game. Killing every last free-roaming python in South Florida is just a pipe dream. The appropriate word is control, and while that term is subject to legitimate differences of interpretation, we have a general idea of what it means in the case at hand.
We don’t want to merely keep the python problem from getting worse than it is now, though that alone would be a praiseworthy achievement. What we really hope to do is reduce the free-roaming python population of South Florida to the “ecologically extinct” level – that is, to numbers so low that the species cannot play a significant role in ecosystem functioning. We’d then be dealing with nuisance pythons here and there, not pythons by the hundreds of thousands causing serious problems in geographically widespread areas.
How to bring about this sharp reduction in python numbers remains an open question. Scientists and wildlife managers are using and developing a variety of policies, tactics, and strategies. These include:
• Using partnerships to develop, implement, and coordinate python control efforts. The National Park Service has already partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the South Florida Water Management District, the University of Florida, and the Savannah River Ecology Lab, to name just a few collaborators.
• Conducting research designed to develop and improve methods for locating and capturing or killing free-roaming pythons. Scientists are performing necropsies to learn more about the python diet, radio-tracking captured pythons to learn more about their movements, mapping python captures and sightings to learn more about their distribution, testing various kinds of python traps and baits, designing airborne devices for detecting pythons, and performing myriad experiments yielding new, potentially useful information.
• Disseminating information about pythons and python control methods. Workshops and hands-on demonstrations in the field are two time-proven methods for doing this. Harnessing the Internet to the needs of this campaign will speed things up considerably.
• Making it easy for people to report the location of any free-roaming pythons they encounter. The NPS already has a python hotline that the public can use to report python sightings on parklands.
• Using rapid response teams to deal with python problems that demand urgent attention. A key tactic is to stamp out new infestations while they are in the incipient stage, “nipping them in the bud” before they can explode beyond control. The NPS is already working with the FWS, the USGS, and state natural resource management agencies to insure that invasive animal rapid response and control teams are properly trained and equipped to deal with pythons.
• Developing reliable methods for locating pythons. Many pythons are dispersed in densely vegetated or remote areas (such as mangrove forests) and are so well camouflaged that they may be difficult to spot from just a few feet away. One low-tech method is to use dogs specially trained to find pythons. Another low-tech method is to look for them along roads, paths, canal banks, and other open areas where these cold-blooded creatures go to find sunshine and warmth. A promising high-tech method employs small remotely-operated airplanes equipped with heat sensors that can detect pythons.
• Expanding the python capture program in Everglades National Park. The NPS has used experienced volunteers (authorized agents) to help capture many of the more than 350 pythons removed from the park in recent years. Training more people to find and capture pythons should increase the capture rate proportionately.
• Using baited traps to capture pythons. Capturing pythons in traps baited with attractants such as python pheromones may be especially appropriate in areas that have heavy concentrations of pythons (you can efficiently capture a lot of them) and in peripheral areas not yet colonized (you can detect threats early-on and perhaps establish a barrier to further spread). Prototype traps and lures must be tested under a great variety of field conditions.
• Encouraging licensed hunters to shoot pythons they encounter in the normal course of hunting. Few hunters have any qualms about killing pythons. This is basically a matter of removing any remaining legal impediments to the killing of these non-game animals on federal, state, and private lands. A pilot "Partner with Hunters" Program has already been developed for Big Cypress National Preserve.
• Paying bounties to people who capture or kill free-roaming pythons. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is already operating a pilot bounty permit system, but it remains to be seen whether it is appropriate for national parks and other federal lands.
• Promoting responsible exotic pet ownership. People continue to release pet pythons into the wild when they no longer want them. The NPS has worked with other federal and state agencies to distribute educational materials and place signage reminding the public that releasing pythons and other exotic pets is a crime. Staging non-native pet amnesty days (typically sponsored by a zoo or wildlife sanctuary) offers an alternative to releasing unwanted pythons into the wild.
It will be interesting to see whether and how quickly the “broad partnership and multiple strategies” approach to python control in South Florida will work.
Postscript: About 60 miles from where I am sitting, there is a “snake pit” enclosure at the Savannah River Ecology Lab (SREL) in which a team of scientists from the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the University of Florida has released seven Florida-captured Burmese pythons. The scientists want to know whether the sterilized, microchipped, radio-tagged, snakes (some of which are more than ten feet long) can survive this far north. I don’t need to wait for the results. I’m already very confident that these buggers will find a way to handle South Carolina’s sissy winter and come out the other side just as fat and happy as they went in. South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, East Texas, and Tennessee are all places where pythons can be expected to eventually take up residence.