IN THE EVERGLADES — State officials are pushing a plan to put a bounty on the Burmese pythons that have invaded the Everglades.
Wildlife commissioners met with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Thursday and got his endorsement to pursue the idea, they said afterward.
"If we can send someone to the moon, we can figure out how to get rid of these snakes," said Commissioner Ron Bergeron, who gave Salazar, Gov. Charlie Crist, and Sen. Bill Nelson a ride on his airboat to tour the River of Grass.
Crist also endorsed the idea. He said a bounty "may create a positive outcome for this problem."
Details remain to be worked out as to the amount of the bounty and how it would work. Another wildlife commissioner, Rodney Barreto, offered to put up $10,000 of his own money to get the program started.
Barreto said federal officials have been reluctant to go along with the idea, but Salazar said it has worked out west and he's in favor of pursuing it.
The Burmese python, a non-native species, is considered one of the most damaging exotics to invade the Everglades, as well as one of the most elusive.
Federal officials estimate there could be more than 150,000 of them slithering through the River of Grass. They base that estimate on the fact that they diligently turned over one 1,200-acre area in Everglades National Park and found 55 of the huge constrictors, which squeeze their prey to kill it.
The pythons breed freely in tropical South Florida, and they are voracious predators. Some pythons killed by biologists had deer and bobcats in their stomachs.
Biologists have been sounding the alarm about the invasion of exotic species such as the python for years. But the problem at last captured worldwide attention in 2005 when park employees snapped photos of a python that had died while attempting to swallow an alligator.
Everglades National Park Superintendent Dan Kimball said his staff jokes that the python is the "spokes-snake" for all the exotic species infesting the park.
In fact, park biologist Skip Snow, who discovered the python-gator standoff, brought along a big black box to Thursday's Everglades tour. Out of it he and two other biologists pulled a 16-foot python that they had captured in the park. It took all three of them to hold it down for Nelson, Salazar and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek to get a good look.
Salazar, a Colorado rancher before becoming a public official, kneeled down to touch the snake even as other officials and spectators, gathered for the news conference at an Alligator Alley boat ramp, leaned away from it. This marked his first trip to the Everglades since assuming the job, and he reiterated the Obama administration's support for the $10 billion Everglades restoration project.
Kimball, Snow's boss, was unsure whether the bounty program would work. But state officials say federal efforts to stop the spread of pythons have fallen short, so they're ready to get the public's help in hunting the big snakes.
Sam Hamilton, regional administrator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said such a bounty program has shown promise in Louisiana. But the species being hunted there, a rodent-like creature called the nutria, is far easier to track than the python.
About 40 people — government staffers and reporters — accompanied Salazar, Nelson and Crist on the Everglades tour. They tagged along in 12 airboats that followed Bergeron's boat in scooting through the sawgrass and cattails, chasing alligators out of the way. One airboat pilot, Rob Connelly of Wilton Manors, said he frequently sees pythons slithering away when he's running his boat across the marl prairies.
"They're fast," he said.
Finding the pythons may be the hardest part of making a bounty-hunting program work. Biologists have captured some pythons and put tiny transmitters in them, then released them back into the wild to try to track down others. They report several instances where they were standing right in the spot where the radio signal says a python should be, yet they could see absolutely nothing.
Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or email@example.com.