Environment

South Florida water managers to expand python hunt

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.

The South Florida python posse is turning into a regular gig.

On Thursday, the South Florida Water Management District governing board agreed to continue and expand the hunt that had bagged 158 snakes and about 2,000 eggs in Miami-Dade County by the time it ended on June 1. Now, when it reopens on June 17, hunters will be allowed to also hunt the invasive snake blamed for driving down the population of small mammals across the Everglades in Broward and Collier counties.

The pay-for-pythons program was pitched as a test of the effectiveness of targeted hunts. In January, a pair of Irula Indian hunters caught 33 snakes in two months. But since they began spreading across marshes in the 1990s, the snakes have foiled other efforts to control them, including snake-sniffing dogs and tracked Judas snakes meant to smoke out wild snakes.

At about $300 a snake, it’s still not clear how cost-effective the hunt is, board member Jim Moran said.

There are “estimates on the number of snakes as high as 100,000,” he said.

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Indian hunters from the Irula tribe tracked down this 16-foot female python in Key Largo. Joe Wasilewski

The board originally approved $175,000 for the program. Less than $50,000 was paid to hunters, said Land Resources Bureau Chief Rory Feeney. Ten additional hunters will be hired to cover the new territory. The staff considered raising the pay or changing the amount paid for snakes, but ultimately settled on keeping it the same: $8.10 an hour and a sliding scale bounty based on the size of the snake. They are also considering replacing five hunters who failed to catch snakes.

Along with bagging more snakes than any other sanctioned hunt — the state’s 2016 Python Challenge came in at 106 — hunters revealed some intriguing details about the art of hunting the cryptic snakes who easily vanish into marshes.

Most snakes, 61 percent, were captured between 4 p.m. and midnight. The highest number, 62, were also caught along the L-28 canal north of the Tamiami Trail along the western edge of the district’s vast water conservation area. The snakes averaged between seven and 10 feet long, with the longest measuring 16 feet, 10 inches long, Feeney said.

In addition to expanding into other counties, Feeney said Miami-Dade County has asked about sending hunters onto county owned land. Hunters are now limited to land owned by the district. No closure date was set for the new hunt.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

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