South Florida python hunters bag a ton of snakes — cost-effectively

Omar Gomez is among the paid hunters tracking pythons on state land in Miami-Dade County for the South Florida Water Management District. Gomez was selected from about a thousand applicants for the pilot project.
Omar Gomez is among the paid hunters tracking pythons on state land in Miami-Dade County for the South Florida Water Management District. Gomez was selected from about a thousand applicants for the pilot project. adiaz@miamiherald.com

What’s longer than two football fields, weighs more than a ton, and likes to gobble up marsh bunnies, birds, alligators and just about any living thing it encounters?

Answer: The 80 pythons so far captured in the state’s first trapper-for-hire snake hunt. Since March, 25 hunters working for the South Florida Water Management District in Miami-Dade County have bagged dozens of pythons ranging in length from four feet to nearly 17 feet. The two-month pilot project on state land that ends in three weeks has also come in well under budget, with hunters earning about $29,000, or about $370 per snake.

At that rate, the hunt could go down as one of the most cost-effective efforts so far in the losing battle to control the voracious invader that has replaced native alligators as the marsh’s top predator.

“It’s fluctuating each day, but compared to other strategies, it has been very cost-effective,” said district field biologist Michael Kirkland.

In a presentation to a district advisory board last week, land resources chief Rory Feeney said that hunters on foot, in vehicles and in airboats fanned out across district lands but had their most luck in seven areas, predictably along canals and on levees. Most of the snakes were caught at night — likely due to the warm weather that made prey more active after sunset, Kirkland said. About 30 percent were egg-bearing females, with clutches averaging about 40 eggs each but sometimes reaching as high as 80.

“If we multiply that by 40 females, that’s 1,600 pythons we’ve prevented from being born into the Everglades,” Kirkland said. “And there’s an exponential factor to that. We’ve essentially removed thousands of snakes.”

But with estimates marsh-wide ranging from 10,000 to 100,000, scientists, including Kirkland, say that hunters alone will never stop an invasion that started in the 1980s and became an all-out occupation around 2005, when the number of snakes caught began steadily climbing.

“When you have an organized effort to look for snakes, you’re going to catch snakes,” said University of Florida biologist Frank Mazzotti. “But the other side of this is none of this scales up to having an overall impact on reducing the python population.”

Earlier this year, Mazzotti and state wildlife officials organized a hunt employing two Irula tribesmen, skilled snake trackers whose ancestors helped hunt pythons in their native territory to extinction. In a month, the two hunters bagged 33 snakes.

“The way I look at this is we have a patient who’s very sick, and we’re not really sure how to cure it. But while we’re coming up with that cure, we have to treat the symptoms,” Mazzotti said.

The biggest challenge remains finding snakes. With their cryptically colored black and brown scales, the snakes are perfectly camouflaged in the marshes. Snakes have been trapped, tagged and tracked over the years — scientists now know Florida pythons can tolerate saltwater and will hunker down in gopher tortoise burrows — but much remains unknown. As part of the hunt, district officials are recording the location, time of each capture, sex and species, because hunters are also looking for invasive African rock pythons.

Hunters are being paid $8.10 an hour plus $50 for every four-foot snake and $25 for each additional foot, a bonus for snakes with eggs, and they are allowed to keep the carcasses. Some have allowed district officials to check stomach contents to better understand eating habits. Nearly all had eaten birds, an indication that all of the small mammals are gone, Kirkland said.

After the project ends on June 1, Kirkland said that district officials would take a close look at the numbers to calculate its efficiency. The district governing board is slated to get an update at Thursday’s meeting.

“It is just one tool in the toolbox, no doubt about that,” he said. “But so far, it has been the most effective tool.”

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