Environment

Python hunters will be allowed into Everglades National Park

For the first time, participants in a state-sponsored bounty hunt will be allowed to stalk a national park that is ground zero for the invasive snake.
For the first time, participants in a state-sponsored bounty hunt will be allowed to stalk a national park that is ground zero for the invasive snake. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The Python Challenge — a bounty hunt that drew hunters from across the country and media from around the world — will be held early next year and for the first time will include ground zero for the slithery invader: Everglades National Park.

In announcing rules for the month-long competition, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said the hunt — scheduled for Jan. 16 through Feb. 14 — will expand to cover more state land. The hunt also will include the national park where pythons have taken over as the marsh’s top predator and have been blamed for wiping out a growing number of small mammals.

“We all have to be part of the solution, and while nobody expects the Challenge to result in a dent in the python population, it’s value in engaging … the public and creating public awareness is great,” park superintendent Pedro Ramos said Tuesday.

While boundaries are still be discussed, Ramos said hunting zones will likely include areas around Bear Lake near the Flamingo marina and the L-67 canal near the park’s northern border.

The last Python Challenge held in 2013 drew more than 1,500 hunters from around the world and was confined to state lands. More publicity stunt than snake hunt, the haul totaled just 68 pythons. But state organizers praised the Challenge for accomplishing its primary goal — raising public awareness.

Held on water-conservation lands, the hunt covered about 60 percent of python habitat, with most land inaccessible to hunters. More than 95 percent of participants came up empty-handed.

The effectiveness of the hunts remains a matter open to debate. Talking points circulated to participants say state officials “compare this to an invasive plant-removal day that is common in our conservation lands … offering the public the opportunity to help remove invasive wildlife as a wildlife management tool.”

In a 2014 paper, federal researchers found that while hunts provided lots of opportunity for educating the public about invasive species, such measures can have unintended outcomes. For example, removing “surplus individuals” can make it easier for others to survive, wrote National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ecologist Susan Pasko. Surviving populations might also overproduce to compensate for the hunt.

Wildlife biologists, including organizers of the Challenge, agree the hunt does little to reduce the overall python population in South Florida. But organizers say data collected in the 2013 challenge was used to better understand the snake’s behavior. The upcoming hunt will be held in cooler winter months when the snakes are more easily found sunning themselves on access roads and levees crisscrossing the lands.

Snakes must be captured alive and turned over to wildlife officials, who will perform necropsies to collect information to aid research, Ramos said.

“The value is not lowering the number of pythons in the wild because we know from experience that this is very difficult to do,” he said. “The value is raising the level of awareness that will help us solve not only the python problem but prevent the next python from happening.”

In recent months, some monster python specimens have popped up, which could help draw more participants. Last month, University of Florida researchers landed an 18-foot, 3-inch female python — just three inches shy of the largest ever recorded in the Everglades — along the tram road at Shark Valley.

In the 2013 Challenge, the biggest catches were made by trained hunters. Hoping to correct the imbalance, state officials say next year’s hunters will be required to complete an online training course before the hunt kicks off at Florida International University’s main campus.

While cash prizes have yet to be announced, awards will be handed out for the biggest snake caught and the highest numbers. Hunters can sign up as individuals or in teams of up to five. As more details are confirmed on rules, training, prizes and registration, they will be posted at the state’s python website at pythonchallenge.org.

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