Snake hunters for the South Florida Water Management District hit a major milestone when they bagged their 1000th Burmese python, before heading out and quickly catching eight more.
On Tuesday, the district held a celebratory check-in at the Homestead field station, documenting Number 1,000: an 11-foot, two-inch male snake.
Hunter Brian Hargrove said he caught the snake about 11:40 p.m. Friday near the L-31E canal, a hotspot for python hunters that skirts the cooling canals at Turkey Point and empties into Card Sound. Hargrove, who has caught 115 snakes over the past year, called the capture a "bittersweet thing" during a district Facebook Live broadcast from the event.
"I love snakes actually," he said. "But I also love the Everglades. I grew up here and it’s not the same. You don’t see the same fish. You don’t see any mammals. All you really see are pythons."
Since they first arrived about three decades ago — either as escaped pets or loosed from a nearby breeding facility by Hurricane Andrew — pythons have taken control of the marshes, becoming their top predator and gobbling up nearly all the small mammals. According to one study, the number of raccoons and possums in Everglades National Park had dropped by 99 and 88 percent by 2011. No marsh rabbits or bobcats could be found. Scientists also think the snakes are increasingly crowding around tree islands and feasting on wading birds.
A number of efforts to catch the snakes, which included tagging male Judas snakes to track down breeding females and using snake-hunting dogs, have been tried over the years. But none captured enough snakes to offset costs. The state's Python Challenge drew worldwide attention, but landed less than 200 snakes.
Then last year, the University of Florida tested a theory that managed hunts, using trained cobra hunters from India, could work. In just two weeks, the hunters bagged 14 snakes.
Several months later the district launched its first hunt, hiring 25 hunters and paying a bounty for the invasive snakes for the first time in state history. After they bagged nearly 160 snakes in just two months, which also accounted for about 2,000 eggs, district managers agreed to make the hunt a regular gig. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also signed off on killing pythons without a permit on private lands and about two dozen wildlife management areas.
Hunters have so far snagged pythons from 14 inches long to 18 feet, with an average length of about nine feet, said district scientist Michael Kirkland. The voracious eaters can easily grow from a foot long at birth to five feet in their first year, he said, and reach 11 feet in three to six years. Females lay between 30 and 70 eggs in a clutch each year, but it's not known what rate the eggs hatch and survive, he said.
It's also not clear how many snakes now inhabit the marshes. Kirkland said. Everglades National Park, where they were first studied and documented, is considered the epicenter of the invasion. But, according to park officials, the estimates vary widely, from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. As of October, 1,491 snakes had been removed from the park.
What's more certain is the potential risk of the snakes expanding their territory. Researchers have confirmed breeding pythons in the Keys and mating balls in Collier County. The University of Florida is now tracking their migration north, fearing that as climate changes pushes temperatures higher, the snakes will move further north.
"The prey base is decimated down here," Kirkland said. "So it's only a matter of time before they start branching out."