Wanted: savvy hunter, tolerant of bloodthirsty mosquitoes, immune to muggy heat, able to traipse through razor-sharp sawgrass and — most important — unafraid of snakes.
Florida wildlife officials announced Monday the return of the “Python Challenge,” a monthlong hunt that in 2013 that was wildly successful — at least in terms of drawing out-of-town reporters and TV crews who helped raised the profile of one of the state’s most destructive and wily invaders. The hunt itself did not put a major dent in the Burmese python population, with 1,600 hunters bagging 68 snakes.
The hunt is scheduled for early 2016, when seasonal cold weather should bring out the cold-blooded reptiles. Details are still being ironed out, said Florida Fish and Freshwater Fish Commission spokeswoman Lisa Thompson.
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Since they first appeared in the 1980s, Burmese pythons have taken over as South Florida’s top predator, with an appetite for nearly everything in range, from egrets to deers. They are blamed for wiping out a host of small mammals in the Everglades and have so far eluded all attempts to contain them, including Judas snakes sent to rat out lairs and snake-sniffing dogs.
The biggest threat so far to the snakes? Freezing weather. In 2010, a historic freeze killed the most ever recorded.
Wildlife biologists have almost universally given up on ever getting rid of the snakes, but they still hope to contain them. And anything that raises awareness increases the odds, said University of Florida wildlife biologist Frank Mazzotti.
The challenge “gives the public the opportunity to get involved in solving the problem or at least thinking they’re solving the problem,” he said.
While the first challenge, which offered prizes up to $1,500, drew hunters from 38 states and Canada and landed the biggest take ever in a month, Mazzotti said only skilled hunters typically bag snakes.
“There’s an old saying that 10 percent of the fisherman catch 90 percent of the fish,” he said. “The same is probably true of pythons.”