Environment

Pythons beware — Florida’s new hunters are on the prowl

Government-paid hunter tracks invasive Burmese pythons

The South Florida Water Management District this week launched the state’s first ever team of paid hunters to track invasive Burmese pythons in South Florida.
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The South Florida Water Management District this week launched the state’s first ever team of paid hunters to track invasive Burmese pythons in South Florida.

Omar Gomez has been many things: a firefighter, a paramedic, a husband, a dad, even a “Swamp Ape.” But this week, he joined the history books.

Gomez, 37, became one of Florida’s first-ever government-paid python hunters.

Over the next two months, the team of 25 hunters will track pythons as part of a $175,000 pilot project organized by the South Florida Water Management District to test the theory that well-managed, skilled hunters may make a dent in what has so far been a runaway population of invasive snakes. Gomez, a Kendall resident who also volunteers for the Swamp Ape team tracking pythons for the National Park Service in Everglades National Park and has a day job trapping nuisance animals, was selected from about a thousand applicants.

At just $8.10 an hour, plus a sliding pay scale, pun intended, for every snake bagged, Gomez isn’t motivated by money.

If someone says there’s trouble this way, that’s the way I go.

Python hunter Omar Gomez

“I’ve always been the guy who likes to push it and do stuff other people don’t like,” he said. “If someone says there’s trouble this way, that’s the way I go.”

So as the sun climbed into the sky Thursday, he parked his truck atop the levee along the L-28 canal that divides the Big Cypress National Preserve from a sprawling water conservation area owned by the district — prime snake grounds. He loaded his .357 magnum, stuck it in a holster and strapped it to his belt. Then, because there’s really no time to think when a snake appears, tucked a catch pole, snake tongs and snake gloves into the space between his truck’s windshield and hood for easy access.

Next came the hard part: finding snakes.

Gomez has been tracking pythons in the Everglades for three years and this year caught 17. As a hunter who also tracks deer in Georgia, he knows finding a snake is as much luck as skill.

Within 10 minutes Thursday, he got a good omen: a native black racer spotted from his truck window.

“This is a perfect scenario. It’s how we’ll find pythons,” he said, jumping out to scan grass and downed logs on the sunny side of the levee for the telltale glint of skin, the tire shape of a coiled snake or anything that doesn’t fit the Everglades minimalist landscape.

The district is hoping that expert hunters like Gomez can be more effective than the trained dogs, tracking beacon-equipped Judas snakes, Indian cobra hunters from the Irula tribe and other efforts so far tried to contain pythons.

After the governing board approved the project earlier this month, so many applications from around the country arrived that they had to shut down registration early. The project also drew media inquiries from as far as Japan and Germany.

The one thing they had in common is they were in touch with nature and they knew what was going on and they had a strong desire to stop the problem.

South Florida Water Management District spokesman Randy Smith

“We really had just a wide range, just about every profession,” said spokesman Randy Smith. “But the one thing they had in common is they were in touch with nature and they knew what was going on and they had a strong desire to stop the problem.”

The qualifications for winning a spot were simple: the number of pythons previously caught, knowledge of the region and availability, Smith said.

Among those selected was the Swamp Ape’s founder, Tom Rahill, and a team of University of Florida researchers. But even with seasoned trackers, finding the snakes may be tricky because the hunt comes during prime mating season, when many snakes go underground. Pythons are also easier to find during chillier winter months.

Information collected by the hunters, who are tracked by their phone’s GPS, will be compiled and analyzed to help improve the district’s management efforts, Smith said. Hunters are being allowed to hunt up to eight hours a day, any time of the day, seven days a week. While they have to stick to district land in Miami-Dade County, scientists hope the project may be useful for the whole region, where pythons are now believed to be the top predator, driving down the population of small mammals.

As long it’s evaluated fairly, why not give it a shot.

University of Florida biologist Frank Mazzotti

“Point to any tool out there that’s been super effective, and we can’t identify one,” said University of Florida biologist Frank Mazzotti. “You might say we’ve removed a lot using Judas snakes, yeah, but it’s $11,000 to remove them. The Irulas were pretty cool, but that was up to a couple thousand.”

“As long it’s evaluated fairly, why not give it a shot?”

After making more than a three-mile loop up and down the levee, Gomez came up empty, which did not surprise him. Heading into spring is the worst time to look for pythons, he said. But if the hunters, who he said had bagged three snakes since Saturday, can catch a reasonable number, he’s hoping the district will repeat the project during better conditions.

“A lot of this is really, really hard work. You really have to pay attention to what doesn’t look normal,” he said. It also helps to be humble in the face of such overwhelming odds and remember that tracking a python in the Everglades is lot like finding a needle in a haystack.”

“The one thing [hunters] know,” Gomez said, “is we know nothing at all.”

Then he headed to Boca Raton to catch a raccoon.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Omar Gomez’s first name.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

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