Miccosukee, fed up with state and federal efforts, halt python research on tribal lands

Irula tribesmen chase pythons in the Everglades

Two Irula tribesman, from India, hunt pythons in the Everglades.
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Two Irula tribesman, from India, hunt pythons in the Everglades.

In a move that stunned scientists, the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida has ordered a halt to ongoing research into Burmese pythons on a reservation spread across nearly 130 square miles, according to the tribe’s ecological research coordinator.

The decision means that an ongoing study tracking python habitats and movement by a respected U.S. Geological Survey biologist will cease, along with the state’s effort to track African rock pythons on tribal land off Krome Avenue. The Miccosukee’s researcher said the tribe has always considered the snakes sacred and a change in leadership triggered the decision.

The [tribe’s] wildlife unit will be catching them and disposing of them, but there will be no research.

Gintas Zavadzkas, Miccosukee Tribe ecological resources coordinator

“The [tribe’s] wildlife unit will be catching them and disposing of them, but there will be no research,” said Gintas Zavadzkas, a tribe employee who coordinates efforts. Future work will have to be evaluated on a “case-by-case” basis, he said.

Tribal officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Zavadzkas said the decision arose from the tribe’s frustration with state and federal efforts to control invasive species, including the python, in the Everglades. As an example of agency dysfunction, he pointed to the state’s feud with federal wildlife officials over the spread of Old World climbing fern in Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. Late last year, the South Florida Water Management District took steps to end a 65-year-old arrangement with U.S. Fish and Wildlife to manage the refuge, arguing the federal agency had violated its contract by not ridding the refuge of the exotic plant.

The water district has a similar deal to manage a sprawling water conservation area off Krome Avenue, bordering tribal land, where pythons and other invasive species continue to flourish, Zavadzkas said. The Miccosukee have a decades-old lease to use the 189,000-acre water conversation area in perpetuity to hunt, farm and “carry on the traditional Miccosukee way of life,” according to the tribe’s website.

“The [state] claims the feds need to clean up their act, but they’re the ones with all the power to stop all these invasives, at least in the state,” he said. Among other things, he said, the state has failed to require python owners to neuter pet snakes, which could help control their spread.

While the decision might appear to be political brinksmanship, Zavadzkas said the decision was not politically motivated.

“This is a not a political statement,” he said. “This is a belief statement, and the tribe didn’t bring the snakes here.”

Scientists conducting python research were stunned by the decision.

It doesn’t seem to make much scientific sense, said Bob Reed, a python researcher and chief of the USGS invasive species branch in Colorado.

A reporter for the Palm Beach Post who was biking in Big Cypress National Preserve recorded the moment when the two reptiles started a battle for their survival. The event occurred on December 21, 2016. It's estimated that the snake could be up to

Over the years, scientists have included tribal land in research that led to a greater understanding of how the snakes move through Florida’s vast Everglades, where they have been blamed for wiping out marsh rabbits and raccoons. In 2015, USGS researcher Kristen Hart concluded a five-year tracking study that found pythons easily navigate Florida’s mangrove fringes and congregate around tree islands, valuable insight for hunters trying to track snakes in often impenetrable marshes. The work has recently focused on tracking large female pythons that can lay between 50 and 100 eggs., Reed said. The state of Florida has also been working to control African rock pythons on land just east of the tribe’s Krome Avenue gaming resort.

Other work that could be impacted by the decision includes an ongoing study by another USGS geneticist testing DNA in water to detect the presence of pythons. The research is considered critical to solving the confounding problem of how to find a snake perfectly patterned to disappear. Other research focuses on a pheromone trap to lure snakes; and on the diet and reproductive habits of the snakes, which were recently found breeding in North Key Largo, a troubling sign that the snakes are moving south to threaten fragile island ecosystems.

USGS regional science adviser Nick Aumen said the agency just learned of the tribe’s decision late Monday and was still trying to understand what it means.

“It’s a little soon to be able to say anything,” he said.

If research is discontinued on tribal land, it could clear the way for an unchecked spread of pythons in the heart of the Everglades marshes.

“It will certainly if nothing is done,” Zavadzkas said. “It will certainly be a refuge.”

For researchers, the decision also presents a logistical challenge of having to work around borders not recognized by snakes.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich