Bill Nelson didn’t kill any pythons in the Everglades.
But Florida’s senior senator bagged something bigger Thursday: the rapt attention of the news media.
With a Florida Wildlife commissioner who goes by "Alligator Ron" Bergeron and snake hunters — including one wrangler called "Python Dave" — Nelson and a team of biologists and naturalists roamed the River of Grass to raise awareness about the invasive snakes that are gobbling up the creatures of the Everglades.
The wildlife commission has launched a “Python Challenge” cash-prize contest, which began last Saturday, to get more people to kill more of the snakes.
"These pythons eat everything in the Everglades: bobcats, deer, even alligator and maybe endangered Florida panther," Nelson said.
"These snakes are dangerous. There was a child killed in Central Florida by one of these kept as pets," he said. "The pythons don’t belong here."
But Nelson does.
The Everglades is a piece of Florida history and a place for threatened and endangered species. And Nelson, the only statewide elected Florida Democrat, has been a threatened political species since he first won his Senate seat in 2000.
Nelson, 70, has endured and thrived in a state dominated by elected Republicans. And Thursday’s excursion showed why. Nelson champions and raises awareness of popular causes and knows how to attract press on issues of the day — from the Gulf oil spill to high gas prices to the threat of Chinese drywall to the proliferation of Burmese pythons.
"He has a gift. He knows the value of media exposure and he can earn it," said Rick Wilson, a veteran Republican strategist in Florida who briefly helped run a campaign against Nelson last year.
"Where else but in Florida do you have a U.S. Senator going out to hunt an invasive exotic species that eats alligators and strangles children in their cribs?" Wilson laughed.
Wilson said that, in some ways, Nelson is like the old-time politicians of Florida, a “character” like former Democratic Gov. “Walkin Lawton” Chiles. During his Thursday excursion, some wondered what Nelson’s nickname should be.
Papa Gator? The He-Snake? The King Snake? Python Bill?
“The Last Panther,” said Dan McLaughlin, Nelson’s longtime aide.
“Senator Python,” said Bergeron.
Nelson’s day began as he and Bergeron, a developer and Davie-born Florida cracker, disembarked from the commissioner’s black-and-gold H2 emblazoned with “Alligator Ron” logos.
As cameras clicked and whirred at a dock off Alligator Alley, Nelson held a brief press conference with Bergeron, who held the head of a live 13-foot python while three others kept it from constricting him. The snake had been captured in a Palmetto Bay swimming pool and was brought to the boat-launch as an example of what they hoped to catch and kill.
“These snakes can actually eat an alligator up to about eight feet,” Bergeron said, tightly gripping the python as its tongue occasionally slithered out to taste the air
A TV reporter soon did a stand-up with the snake, warning of the spread of the menace.
But though pythons appear to be spreading at an alarming rate, finding them on a warm day like Thursday is a needle-in-the-haystack exercise.
There could be more than 150,000 pythons in the Everglades and Big Cypress ecosystems that originally covered 4 million acres. So, if the weather isn’t cold and the pythons aren’t sunning themselves on land, they’re almost impossible to find in the shallow, flat expanse of the Everglades, where the snakes blend into the sawgrass and murky water.
Hopping from island to island in the middle of the Glades, not a python was to be found. Only one reptile, an eight-foot alligator, was spotted. They found a deer skull and a tortise shell and the tracks of packs of hogs, which devour pythons and threaten the snakes as much as the snakes threaten them.
A few egrets, heron and anhingas circled around, taking flight at the approach of the python-hunting party and Bergeron’s airboat, equipped with 800-horsepower Corvette engines and emblazoned with images of him brandishing a lasso as he rides a gator.
Bergeron, navigating on instinct and memory, chatted with Nelson about Florida’s history and ecology, pointing out what he said were 10,000-year-old ancient Native American habitations, including Willie Jim’s Island, the namesake of an Indian who lived there when the 68-year-old Bergeron was a kid.
Under Bergeron and his fellow board members, the Florida Wildlife Commission began "The Python Challenge” contest that runs from Saturday until mid-February. Those who capture the most snakes can win $1,500. The hunter with the biggest snake wins $1,000.
To enter, contestants have to pay $25 and take an online training course. They’re supposed to kill the snake humanely, by cutting its head off or shooting it in the head.
By the third day, only 11 snakes had been caught in the contest. New snake-catching figures will be posted by the state Friday.
Asked if the program won’t do much, Nelson said “we have to try, because otherwise we have an Everglades that is an unnatural Everglades.”
Catching thousands of snakes in millions of acres isn’t the only challenge.
So is Congress. For the past three years, Nelson has tried to pass a bill cracking down on the sale and importation of exotic invasive reptiles such as Burmese pythons. Reptile distributors fought the legislation to a standstill.
Finally, Nelson persuaded the Obama Administration to use its executive authority to ban the importation and sale. The state, too, has piggy backed on those regulations. Nelson wants widespread python hunting to be allowed in Everglades National Park instead of just the water conservation areas where the party hunted Thursday.
One reporter asked Nelson if, in Congress, he was used to being up to his waders in vipers. Nelson chuckled.
“That’s a good description,” Nelson said. He then recounted how he tried to bring a live python into a Senate committee, but Capitol Police told him he couldn’t.
That’s not something Florida’s junior Senator, Marco Rubio, would likely do.
In some ways Rubio is Nelson’s opposite. Rubio’s a Republican, a darling of the Wall Street Journal editorial pages and is fashioning himself as a policy wonk. Nelson, a fifth generation Floridian and former astronaut, has made himself more of a populist who isn’t shy about using props to get his point across.
“I got permission to bring in the skin of a 17-footer,” he said. “And we unrolled that skin right over the witness table tat I was speaking to the committee. You should gave seen the eyes of those senators. They got as big as saucers.”
Nelson doesn’t deny it.
“People are so busy these days that you have to get their attention,” he said.
Environmentalists are thankful Nelson is willing to lug snakes and their skins in front of politicians and the press.
“Bill Nelson grabs on to big ideas and won’t let go,” said Eric Draper, an Audubon lobbyist. “He has a sense of the heroic. And what calls for a hero more than slaying monsters in a swamp? The Everglades needs champions because there are a lot of villains.”