A python hunt, with cash rewards, will be held in South Florida beginning in January and running into February with hopes of denting the population of non-native pythons slithering around the Everglades, though the national park will be off-limits to most hunters.
However, Burmese pythons are fair game in neighboring Big Cypress National Preserve, where at least 19 were taken by hunters or preserve staff last year.
Python Challenge ™ 2013 is being sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It is scheduled to kick off at 1 p.m. on January 12 and run until midnight February 10. The hunter who kills the most pythons will receive a $1,500 prize, while $1,000 will be paid for the longest python taken.
Native to Southeast Asia and first found in the Everglades in 1979, the Burmese python is one of the deadliest and most competitive predators in South Florida. With no known natural predator, population estimates for the python range from the thousands to hundreds of thousands.
The constricting python is a potent predator, a quick-growing mass of muscle that is a threat to anything that moves in the Everglades. Its reach is far and its appetite large, with scientists telling us that populations of small mammals -- raccoons, opossums, even bobcats -- are being wiped out of some parts of the national park by these slithering predators. But its prey also can be much, much larger.
Snake-eating alligators and alligator-eating snakes might seem like a science fiction story-line, but those battles are playing out in Everglades National Park, where the invasion of non-native pythons threatens to upend a rich and diverse ecosystem that includes the largest tract of wilderness east of the Rockies.
In a book, Snake in the Grass: An Everglades Invasion, published earlier this year, naturalist Larry Perez clearly outlined the threat these big snakes pose to the Everglades.
“Regardless of where they are found, these pythons normally utilize the full gamut of natural features in an area, frequenting burrows, trees, rocky outcrops, riparian zones, open water, and disturbed lands. In doing so, the snakes exercise their astonishing ability to swim, climb, and contort their bodies to meet the demands of the landscape. They are aided, of course, by tools forged over time through evolution: a supple skeleton, sinewy layers of muscle, and strong prehensile tails.”
Will the upcoming hunt blunt the python population of south Florida? Not with population estimates of Burmese pythons in the general Everglades area in the "tens of thousands," said Everglades Superintendent Dan Kimball.
"I have been at the park, it will be nine years, and we’ve been wrestling with this for a long time," the superintendent said Saturday during a phone call. "What I’ve learned through this whole thing is that there are no silver bullets when you’re dealing with an exotic species like this. What we’re trying to do is chip away at the problem.
"... With this particular event, there’s no way this is going to solve this, but I think it provides enhanced visibility and gets people thinking about it and learning about the issue."
While the 1.5-million-acre national park will be off-limits to most of those who sign up for the challenge, Superintendent Kimball pointed out that the park has trained 30 volunteers to roam the Everglades and remove pythons from the park. If they want to sign up for the challenge, they will be able to go after pythons inside the park, although because they're Park Service volunteers they won't be able to claim any of the monetary prizes, the superintendent said.
Outside of the upcoming hunt and its volunteer patrol, the park has tried various approaches to reducing the python population, even resorting to canines to root out the snakes.
"We’ve had search dogs from the Canine Detection Research Institute," Superintendent Kimball said. "We’ve found that they can successfully find pythons. They basically work roads and levees. ... We also have traps out in the park. We’re trying a lot of things on the control side, but they are very cryptic, very hard to find."
Hunters already are allowed to wrangle snakes in Big Cypress next door, for this 720,567-acre unit of the National Park System is a national preserve, which has slightly different regulations than national parks when it comes to hunting. Hunters are free to kill pythons if they come upon them while hunting other wildlife in Big Cypress, says Bob DeGross, the park's chief of interpretation.
Whether Big Cypress's python problem is as great as that of the Everglades is hard to say. While a reported 169 Burmese pythons were removed from Everglades in 2011, just 19 were said to have been killed in Big Cypress last year, said Chief DeGross.