Faced with an unrelenting spread of invasive Burmese pythons that have mostly wiped out marsh rabbits, bobcats and other small mammals, Everglades National Park is doing something for the first time in its 70-year history: opening park borders to paid hunters.
On Thursday, Superintendent Pedro Ramos announced plans to team up with state wildlife officers who last year began hiring hunters to kill the voracious snakes.
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"We've been chasing this problem trying to find a solution and frankly we ran up against a wall over and over again," he told the Miami Herald. "That history requires us to be open-minded and flexible."
Adding the park to territory already being patrolled by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and South Florida Water Management District hunters will open up the epicenter of the python invasion to hunters' cross-hairs more than two decades after they first appeared.
But the move is not without controversy.
In 2015 when Ramos agreed to allow volunteer hunters into the park for the state's popular Python Challenge, backlash from an environmental group prompted him to scale back participation to all but a few permitted trappers.
The National Park Service bans sport hunting in parks, but not managed removal of unwanted wildlife. Rock Creek Park, north of downtown Washington, has been holding a contentious hunt to cull deer since 2013 to save the park's native plants. Hunting is allowed in about 75 areas covering more than 50 million acres managed by the National Park Service, which sometimes causes confusion over rules in parks.
The park has also allowed the Swamp Apes, a volunteer group of military vets, to trap snakes for about a decade.
But competition with paid programs for hunters appears to be driving down participation: In the last year just 70 or so snakes were caught inside the park compared to about 200 snakes during each of the previous two years, said chief biologist Tylan Dean.
After years of failed efforts — including snake-sniffing dogs and tagged Judas snakes — Ramos said it's time for more aggressive tactics.
"This to us is clearly not hunting in a national park. This is a serious effort to bring people who want to help us with this problem get these things out of the park," he said. "It is a program aimed at removing an exotic species that is having some very deep negative impacts on this landscape."
It's also an attempt to learn more about their habits, he said, and slow a spread that in 2016 reached the northern Florida Keys for the first time. The snakes are so difficult to detect, and marshes so impenetrable, that even determining their numbers remains difficult, said Kristin Sommers, the state's exotic species coordinator.
"The low range would be tens of hundreds and the high range would be hundreds of thousands," she said.
South Florida may never be free of the snakes, but managed hunts in recent years have shown promise. Last year, the wildlife commission and the University of Florida brought snake hunters from India for a month-long pilot project that bagged 14 pythons in two weeks, including a 16-foot female carrying dozens of eggs. The water management district's paid hunt topped 1,000 last week.
Authorized hunters will be vetted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and need to meet a handful of qualifications, including proof that they've legally bagged at least three pythons. Hunters will also earn the same rate paid to district hunters: minimum wage plus $50 for every four-foot snake and $25 for each additional foot. The state initially will pick up the bill for python hunters while the agencies chart the progress of the program in the park.
Hunters will be given access to almost every corner of the park at all hours, but will not be allowed near visitors, including the Coe Visitor Center and Anhinga Trail, while the park is open.
The park hopes to get hunters started as early as July and eventually have up to 120, which would triple the number of volunteers now trapping snakes.
"Using current technology to eliminate pythons is impossible, so we'll try to eliminate as many as we can," Ramos said. "Maybe some day we'll find a way to really get the upper hand."