Predator vs. Predator: The Hunt Continues for Pythons in the Everglades

Florida going all out to eradicate invasive species, threatening native populations

Thursday, June 22, 2017

By Lisa Lakey

Round one of the South Florida Water Management District’s pilot phase to rid Miami-Dade County of pythons ended June 1 with 158 snakes captured including a 16-foot female with 78 eggs.

With the success of the program that drew more than 1,000 applicants, officials from the SFWMD board decided to expand the hunt though September and push the hunting territory into Broward and Collier Counties.

In March, the pilot program kicked off as 25 minimum wage-paid hunters set afoot in the marshes of southern Florida. Cash bonuses were given for snakes more than 4-feet in length. At the end of the initial hunting period, the district had spent less than $50,000 of its $175,000 budget.

“Anyone who has seen the now famous python vs. alligator video [embedded below] can attest that the fight for survival of the Everglades is real,” South Florida Water Management District Governing Board Chairman Dan O’Keefe said. “This board is taking appropriate action to push back the infestation of these invaders. Floridians should have no sympathies for this notorious strangler, and this latest initiative should pave the way for further exotic elimination efforts.”

Joe Capozzi, a writer for the Palm Beach Post in Florida, captured this image last December of a Burmese python estimated to be 15 feet long finishing off an alligator believed to be about 6 feet long. He took photos and a video which went viral. The video is embedded below. (Photos by Joe Capozzi, Palm Beach Post)

The hunt for pythons in South Florida isn’t a new concept. Thriving in the Everglades ecosystem, researchers believe the species invaded the area after being released into the wild by careless pet owners and breeders.

In 2009, then Gov. Charlie Crist approved plans to capture and euthanize Burmese pythons in state marshes south of Lake Okeechobee. Permits were only granted to those deemed “expert” trappers. At the time, scientists estimated there were more than 100,000 pythons in the wild of the Everglades.

The paid hunt by the SFWMD wasn’t even the first attempt of 2017 to put an end to the slithering menace. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission partnered with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to bring in both detection dogs and a more unique approach, Irular tribesmen of India.

“Since the Irular have been so successful in their homeland at removing pythons, we are hoping they can teach people in Florida some of these skills,” Kristen Sommers, of the FWC’s Wildlife Impact Management Section, said in January.

After the first week, the tribesmen had removed 13 pythons in their targeted areas that included the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge on North Key Largo. One of the pythons captured was a 16-foot female.

Besides being the stuff nightmares are made of, pythons pose a real threat to the Everglades ecosystem. In 2015, researchers from the University of Florida released 95 adult marsh rabbits in areas with higher concentrations of the monster snakes.

The study showed that within 11 months, 77 percent of the rabbits had died due to pythons. Which means that other species calling the Everglades home -- panthers, birds of prey, alligators and bobcats -- might soon find their food sources greatly lacking.

Many scientists have doubted that hunts will have any large impact on the python populations, but for now, the best tool the various agencies involved have are the citizens of southern Florida.

Residents are urged to contact the FWC’s Exotic Species Reporting Hotline at (888) 483-4681, or online at IveGot1.org. For more information on hunts and other programs regarding pythons, visit MyFWC.com/Python.

“We know many Florida residents and visitors want to help tackle this tough conservation challenge by going after pythons in the wild and removing any they can find,” FWC Executive Director Nick Wiley said. “We want to continue to encourage and support this important citizen conservation effort.”