When Tom Rahill, veteran snake wrangler and captain of the Swamp Apes, heads out for the 2016 Python Challenge starting Saturday, he’ll be up against some maybe not so serious competition from Team Blood, Sweat and Beers, Team HISS (Hapless Idiots Seeking Snakes) and Team Are You Happy To See Me Or Is That A Python In Your Pants.
Invasive Burmese pythons, no doubt, remain a destructive force in South Florida, blamed for upsetting the Everglades ecosystem by gobbling up whole populations of small mammals.
But during the monthlong Challenge, serious hand-wringing can take a break. Time to raise awareness with the kind of wacko Florida entertainment that lures national news crews and the Discovery Channel, which has contacted at least two teams to document the action.
“This was something not on the bucket list, but now it is,” said Linda McClure, a bookkeeper at a Fort Lauderdale boat company and captain of Team Misguided who, frankly, would rather be hunting “the people who let [the snakes] go.”
So far, more than 500 competitors have signed up, about a third of the number who participated in the inaugural Challenge in 2013. That hunt drew global attention but disappointed hunters with a haul of just 68 snakes. This time around, after fending off criticism that the Challenge did little to dent the snake population, state officials have taken greater care to train hunters, focus efforts on educating the public and emphasize the importance of collecting data from hunters who they hope will double as citizen scientists.
“One thing we learned from 2013 is that the people who were more experienced and more trained were more effective, which is kind of a no-brainer,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Carli Segelson.
To participate, hunters must successfully complete an online test that includes questions about how to best locate, capture and kill snakes. (PETA opposes decapitation and would prefer hunters use a handgun or captive bolt pistol, ala the psycho hitman of No Country For Old Men.) Wildlife officials have also offered training classes around the state and created online videos. On Saturday, they’ll hold an invasive species festival at Florida International University.
“Even if people are only reporting back to us where they find them so we can go search those areas, then we’ve done a really good job,” said Kristin Sommers, FWC’s exotic species coordinator. “Getting a more effective public is really one of our goals for this.”
Organizers also expanded the hunt to cover more territory in South Florida. But Everglades National Park, the epicenter of the infestation for the cold-blooded Asian reptiles, remains off-limits to all but a few authorized trackers. Snakes have been found as far north as the panhandle, but they are likely escaped pets. A 2015 study found temperatures appeared to create a kind of invisible barrier keeping snakes from migrating up the state. And because the snakes are do difficult to detect, it’s hard to know whether the concentration in the park is merely a matter of better documentation.
“The park has this robust program,” Rahill said. “On any given night, you have at least some if not several institutions doing python surveys and captures.”
How many snakes exist beyond park boundaries is something state officials hope the hunt will help determine. Organizers are also hoping the Challenge helps ease concern among different agencies who manage the various lands and who have been reluctant to allow python hunting year-round, said Ernie Marks, FWC’s South Florida regional director.
“We’re kind of in a new environment now,” he said.
For this hunt, Rahill, is leading a team of three vets and a first-responder and will be tailed by the Discovery Channel shooting video. As part of his Swamp Apes program, which takes war vets on snake-finding missions in the park, he estimates he has caught 300 snakes.
Python hunting, he warns, is not for the meek: serrated sawgrass and mosquitoes, even in winter, can be daunting. Gear is important. Rahill dons snake boots, jeans, two long-sleeved shirts and wide-brimmed bush hat he calls his Everglades hardhat.
He advises potential hunters, who can sign up throughout the monthlong Challenge that ends Feb. 14, to pay attention to the weather and look for high ground. The snakes are now entering their basking and mating season, which means in the mornings they’ll be looking to warm up on dry, elevated land or soak up the day’s heat on roads in the late afternoon.
While most hunters will likely be looking along easily accessible roads, Rahill says he likes to head into the swamp to tree islands where nesting birds provide a supply of eggs.
“I just push through and get to the areas where the pythons live and knock on their front doors,” he said.
McClure is following a simpler strategy: out before daylight to wait for the pythons to emerge at first light. While she certainly hopes to bag one or more, McClure says she’ll take no particular delight in the kill.
“The snakes didn’t get here of their own accord, but they’re endangering the natives and that’s not acceptable,” she said. “It’s sad because they’re living, breathing creatures....Now I’m hearing they caught an anaconda near Stuart.”