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Sen. Bill Nelson hunts for big pythons — and a little publicity

IN THE FLORIDA EVERGLADES — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson really hates pythons.

He wants them out of Florida. He wants them dead.

He tells anyone who will listen — and TV cameras tend to eat it up — how nonnative Burmese pythons are threatening to upend the ecosystem of the Everglades.

He recounts the 17-foot, 7-inch python found in the Everglades with 87 eggs inside waiting to hatch. And the 16-footer found in the Everglades after devouring a deer whole.

"There was a child killed in Central Florida by one of these kept as a pet," he reminded reporters Thursday. "The pythons don't belong here."

To show how much he means it, Nelson set out to personally kill some of the critters. Equipped with handguns, machetes and five airboats loaded with media, wildlife experts, aides and one true fellow Florida cracker, Python Bill spent six hours stalking the menacing monsters.

"You can hear the hissing right now. This guy is getting upset," Nelson said contemptuously of a live 13-foot Burmese python, its girth as thick as a man's thigh, that three men held out to show reporters before Nelson set out from Alligator Alley for the hunt.

As many as 150,000 pythons are said to be lurking in the Everglades, gorging on raccoons, bobcats, small gators, opossums and most anything else they want.

That figure might produce an image of the Everglades, well, crawling with monstrous serpents everywhere. The thing is, the Everglades covers 4 million acres, pythons are impeccably camouflaged and they remain scarce in warm weather.

Reporters along for the ride never did get to see the 70-year-old senator ram a machete into the head of a giant python because no one found any.

There was a brief moment of excitement, however, when a writer from the Tallahassee Democrat, wading through the sawgrass marsh, announced, remarkably calmly, he had just stepped on a sizable snake.

It turned out to be an old PVC pipe lurking under the water.

Thursday's hunt for snakes and publicity was aimed at drawing attention to the problem with invasive Burmese pythons in Florida, as well as the state's first "Python Challenge," allowing the public to hunt the snakes in the Everglades and turn them in — dead, not alive — to researchers at the University of Florida.

Nelson has already shepherded through Congress a ban on importing Burmese pythons, and now he's working with federal officials to allow hunting them in the national park section of the Everglades.

"The Everglades is one of the great natural wonders of the entire Earth," Nelson said, "and the entire ecological apple cart is being upset by this invasive species."

Nelson himself is an endangered species in Florida, a fifth-generation Floridian who proudly calls himself a true Florida cracker. So does the leader of Thursday's expedition, Ron Bergeron, a sixth-generation Floridian and rodeo champion who grew up in and around the Everglades, wrestles alligators (though it's illegal) and serves on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Bergeron, 68, said he prefers to use his hands when hunting pythons: Grab 'em by the tail, pull them toward you and let them tire themselves out. Then simply take the machete and slice across the head.

Subtlety is not Bergeron's thing.

He arrived in a black Hummer with gold trim, embossed with "Alligator Ron." He wore a black cowboy hat, black handkerchief tied around his neck and a bejeweled silver rodeo belt buckle only slightly smaller than a giant python.

Bergeron and Nelson hopped onto a souped-up airboat with rudders painted with the image of Bergeron riding a gator and swinging a lasso.

Along the way, they traded stories of old Florida — Nelson recalling how as a barefoot youngster he used a mule plow on his granddad's North Florida farm, and Bergeron recounting when his airboat broke down in the Everglades and he made his way alone 40 miles over three days to get home.

The crew waded through the sawgrass marsh and scoured various little islands for the snakes. At most of them, Bergeron mentioned how many pythons he had seen previously on that island, which may even have been true.

"When you hunt for these snakes you usually wait for a real cold spell. Then you'll see them," said Bergeron, who followed another old Florida tradition and made millions developing the state.

Finally, no snake carcasses in tow, the expedition stopped at one of Bergeron's two deluxe Everglades campsites, this one equipped with a helicopter pad and a comfortable cabin dubbed "Red Neck Yacht Club."

Over sandwiches, Nelson called over a couple of wildlife experts to talk to the reporters about the python problem.

Is that the worst invasive species in Florida? someone asked.

Not even close. Feral pigs do far more damage, said biologist Shawn Hefflick.

And don't even get started on feral cats. By one state estimate, as many as 15 million feral cats roam Florida and also feast on endangered wildlife such as wood rats, added Greg Graziani, a reptile breeder.

A reporter asked Nelson if next time he would lead them on a hunt for cats. He smiled and quickly excused himself.

Sen. Bill Nelson hunts for big pythons — and a little publicity 01/17/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 18, 2013 9:21am]

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