Sure, Florida’s python roundup may be a little gimmicky — an annual photo op with swarms of media and high-dollar prizes (so far totaling more than $24,000 this year) but the motivation is dead serious.
In the decades since the Asian reptiles have been here, 90 to 95% of fur-bearing mammals in Everglades National Park and surrounding wildlands have disappeared.
“That’s a staggering number … It’s really an emergency situation for our native animals,” said Mike Kirkland, who manages the South Florida Water Management’s python elimination program, “(and) that’s why I’m involved."
The chance to catch a huge snake in the Everglades draws people from all over the U.S. and beyond. “Someone came from Ontario this year – drove here,” said Kirkland, who’s stepped away from his check-in station Wednesday, where he’d been logging and measuring snakes bagged by hunters. “It’s a very busy day, we’re halfway through it, but the challenge is a success.”
Florida Python Challenge: What is the Florida Python Challenge? 7 things to know
So far, more than 800 people have paid the $25 registration fee and passed the online training with a grade of at least 85% in order to participate in the 10-day hunt, which ends at 5 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 14). (Or perhaps it’s better called a 10-night hunt; Kirkland says the vast majority of snakes are caught after dark.)
How does the Florida Python Challenge work?
The competition is open to novices and professionals alike. Professionals are paid python removal contractors for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission or the water management district; novices are members of the public.
Anyone can participate, but hunters younger than 18 must be with a registered adult.
Because pythons are non-native invasives, a Florida hunting license isn’t needed. Maps are available online. Amateur challenge hunters can hunt on approved public land managed by the district and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Registered professional python removal contractors have access behind some locked gates, but there’s plenty of available real estate, Kirkland says. “We’re getting pythons from most of the approved areas.”
Pros and amateurs each vie for first-and second-place prizes for most snakes and longest snake ($2,500 for most snakes) and Edison National Bank is sponsoring the same categories for service members.
If they like their first taste of python removal, hunters can keep doing it. “There’s no season on python and the public is not only allowed but encouraged to humanely remove pythons from public areas year-‘round,” Kirkland said. Same is true on private land, with owner permission, he said.
If you want to go pro, it’s trickier. There’s a long waiting list to fill the 50 or so paid contractor slots, he said, and “They’re difficult to get into because we have a low turnover rate and thousands of people trying to get in.”
Python removal progress
Since the agencies began tracking in the spring of 2017, they’ve removed more than 10,000 pythons from natural areas, he said, and considering that about half of those were reproductive females, “you can apply an exponential factor to that, so it’s really tens of thousands of pythons removed from the system.”
The program makes good economic sense, Kirkland says, since Everglades restoration is "an effort that’s taken billions of taxpayer dollars," he said. "If we allow an apex invasive predator like the Burmese python take over these areas we’re restoring, then a lot of those efforts would be wasted."
Even without a snake or a prize, Merray Harriswas happily wrapped up in the challenge – his first since moving here from Pennsylvania.
After reading a study on how the snakes are devastating populations of rabbits and deer, the new Lee County resident decided he wanted in.
He took the training, then drove to Loop Road, which horseshoes through Collier, Monroe and Miami-Dade counties. He headed for Deep Lake, which traverses some "amazing" territory.
But when he spotted a bear track bigger than his hand, Harris decided to call it a day – a very good day, he hastens to add. “I saw some beautiful things in the Everglades.”
For more information on the Florida Python Challenge, visit flpythonchallenge.org.
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Florida Python Challenge 2022: Join the hunt for snakes in Everglades