Python Challenge 2013 Results Offer Help For Florida Parks – And Bad News For Pythons

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist Kevin Enge with Burmese python. FWC photo by David Cook

The results of Python Challenge 2013, a multi-agency effort that offered cash prizes to promote the removal of non-native Burmese pythons from the greater Everglades area in southern Florida, are now in the books.

Although the end result was bad news for exotic pythons, winners included the successful hunters, scientists and parks—and three lucky snakes.

Participants who bagged both the largest number of pythons as well as the largest individual snake netted tidy cash awards, and scientists gained valuable information to aid in the on-going battle against the unwelcome invaders. The exotic (non-native) pythons pose a serious threat to other wildlife in Florida, and that includes areas such as Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve.

Nearly 1,600 people from 38 states, the District of Columbia and Canada registered for the competition, which allowed hunting for the snakes on public lands in four state-designated wildlife management areas (WMAs) in the greater Everglades area: Everglades and Francis S. Taylor, Holey Land, Rotenberger and Big Cypress. The Big Cypress WMA includes much of the land within Big Cypress National Preserve.

Organizers Pleased With Results

Results of the competition were announced recently by The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and although the number of snakes captured—68—may seem low given the number of hunters in the field, organizers were pleased with the outcome.

The major goal was to "heighten public awareness about this invasive species," and the event "also proved to be an unprecedented opportunity to gather important data about Burmese python populations and their impact on the Everglades ecosystem."

When dropping off a harvested Burmese python, contest participants were required to complete a data sheet providing information such as the snake’s size, GPS location and habitat where it was found. Data is still being analyzed, so it's not yet known if any of the reptiles came from National Park Service property at Big Cypress National Preserve.

“Thanks to the determination of Python Challenge competitors, we are able to gather invaluable information that will help refine and focus combined efforts to control pythons in the Everglades,” FWC Executive Director Nick Wiley said. “The enthusiastic support from the public, elected officials, conservation organizations, government agencies and researchers gives hope that we can make progress on this difficult conservation challenge by working together.”

Good News for Three Snakes?

For three of the captured snakes there was a bit of a surprising outcome: They were released back to the wild, but this wasn't a concession to PETA or other snake-lovers. Their temporary freedom offers a chance to bag even more of their kind.

Prior to their release, each of the seemingly lucky reptiles were fitted with a pair of radio transmitters to allow researchers to track their movements. The resulting data should provide valuable information about the snake's activities and preferred locations and thus lead to the eventual removal of a larger number of pythons, whose natural camouflage makes them very difficult to locate in the wild. For an example of the challenge of spotting one of the snakes in the dense Florida grass, take a look at this photo.

The timing of the release was a strategic decision, since it's breeding season and it's hoped the radio-tagged snakes will be looking for love in all the right places. The tagged snakes are expected to seek out fertile females, who can then be located and removed before they add yet another crop of young snakes to the Florida wetlands. The tracking devices will also allow the trio of tagged reptiles be recaptured later this spring.

Winning Hunters Announced

As to the contest itself, there were two separate Python Challenge™ competitions: the General Competition for the public and the Python Permit Holders Competition for people who have permits from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) and other agencies to regularly harvest these snakes.

The $1,500 Grand Prize for harvesting the most Burmese pythons went to Brian Barrows, who harvested six pythons in the General Competition, and Ruben Ramirez, who harvested 18 pythons in the Python Permit Holders Competition.

The $1,000 First Place Prize for harvesting the longest Burmese python went to Paul Shannon, who harvested a 14-foot, 3-inch-long python in the General Competition, and Blake Russ, who harvested an 11-foot, 1-inch-long python in the Python Permit Holders Competition.

Python Challenge 2013 was organized by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and involved a wide-ranging list of partners, including the University of Florida, South Florida Water Management District, The Nature Conservancy, The Future of Hunting in Florida, the Wildlife Foundation of Florida, Zoo Miami, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Everglades National Park.

Hunt Results Also Good News for Most Park Visitors

The rather small number of snakes captured during the month-long event despite the best efforts of hundreds of highly motivated hunters also holds a bit of good news for many park visitors, most of whom are not interested in encountering snakes of any size.

An Everglades National Park spokesperson commented that the extensive media coverage of the python situation in the Everglades has created a misconception for many visitors about the likelihood that they'll encounter one of the large snakes in the park. As the outcome of the recent contest has shown, it's very unlikely most visitors will ever see one of the reptiles.

Wildlife officials remind the public that everyone can help in the fight against invasive species by reporting any sightings of Burmese pythons and other exotic animals at this link. On-the-spot reports, described as "If you've got a live animal in front of you in Florida right now," should be reported by calling 1-888-IVE-GOT-1.