Five months. Five hundred pythons.
That’s the tally so far for what’s turning out to be a wildly popular effort by the South Florida Water Management District to eliminate the invasive snake from state lands. On Thursday, snake hunter Jason Leon of Miami killed a seven-foot python to hit the 500 mark.
“The speed with which hunters are finding and eliminating these destructive snakes showcases not only their dedication to the effort, but also the enormity of this invasive predator problem in the Everglades,” governing board chairman Dan O’Keefe said in a statement. “Every one of these 500 snakes killed helps ensure the lives of hundreds of native species essential to the Everglades ecosystem.”
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Earlier in the hunt, Leon also bagged a 14-foot, 9-inch snake, coming close to the 16-foot, 10-inch hunt record slain by orchid grower Dusty Crum in May.
The hunt, the first for-hire effort in the state and designed to determine the efficacy of managed hunts, was launched by the district in March. Originally planned to last just two months, district officials extended it after hunters captured and killed 158 snakes, along with 2,000 eggs. Hunters are being paid about $8 an hour plus a bounty for each snake, which amounts to about $100 for each 6-foot snake.
Outings with hunters are also turning out to be a big draw for politicians, including Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and Key Largo State Rep. Holly Raschein. Celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsey also tagged along, cooking up a dish from a slain python on the spot with a portable grill.
District officials say in addition to eliminating snakes, the hunt has drawn international attention to the problem. Python first appeared in the Everglades in the 1980s and spread rapidly in the 1990s. Scientists say they have helped drive down the population of small mammals across marshes and now rank as the ecosystem’s top predator, out-eating even alligators.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich