Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A deadly order to evict Burmese pythons

I'm always up for an adventure. To quote the late Frank Zappa, "Anything, anytime, anyplace, for no reason at all."

So when my editor suggested I register for the 2013 Python Challenge, I couldn't say no. The monthlong event, open to the public, targets the Burmese python, an invasive species that poses a threat to the state's native wildlife.

The hunt begins at 1 p.m. Saturday and runs through Feb. 10. The state will pay $1,000 to the hunter who bags the longest python; $1,500 to the hunter who kills the most pythons.

It costs $25 to enter and snake hunters must take a 45-minute online class before they are granted the special python permit. The instruction is fairly basic: primarily how to distinguish a Burmese python from native species, and what to do with the carcass. The instruction on how to kill the snake is thorough. Hunters are told to dispatch the python "humanely" with a firearm, machete or "captive bolt pistol," a device commonly used to euthanize cattle.

But advice on how to subdue the snake is minimal. These nonvenomous predators have sharp teeth and they typically bite their prey with viselike jaws before encircling it with their long, muscled bodies. I wondered what to do if the human hunter suddenly becomes the hunted.

The special license is valid on any of four designated state wildlife management areas — Everglades and Francis S. Taylor, Holey Land, Rotenberger and Big Cypress — all of which are located in South Florida, where these snakes have established a foothold.

I must admit that I had mixed emotions when I first heard about this program. Generally speaking, I like snakes, as they play a vital role in the ecosystem and people often kill them without thinking of the environmental consequences.

Burmese pythons, however, are not an indigenous species. Many were accidentally released into the wild decades ago. Others were let loose intentionally by owners.

There are thousands of these snakes — some more than 17 feet long — living on the state's public lands. As a result, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issues special permits to licensed hunters who help remove the snakes on a year-round basis. But this ongoing removal program has not done enough to protect native wildlife from these snakes. These pythons prey on native species of mammals, birds and other reptiles, as well as other nonnative species. That's why the FWC is enticing more hunters to help turn the tide.

I had other misgivings about joining this hunt. I've always lived by the rule that an ethical hunter only kills what he can eat. Pythons are not considered particularly good table fare, at least here in Florida. Most of the snakes in question are found in the Everglades, and tests have proved that their meat contains unsafe levels of mercury. So you really can't eat them. But then again, you can't let them continue to reproduce and throw off nature's balance.

To tell you the truth, I'm also a little scared. I once saw a big snake in the Amazon and made a mental note to stay as far away as possible from those creatures. And to "capture" and "dispatch" a Burmese python, you can't help but get up close and personal.

These constrictor snakes, native to India, China and the Malay Peninsula, can grow to be 26 feet long and weigh more than 200 pounds. But while the Burmese python may be one of the biggest snakes in the world, most specimens in Florida average 6 to 9 feet.

Pythons like the water, but they are also excellent climbers. Residents of South Florida often see the large snakes crossing roads, especially after the sun has gone down. While Burmese pythons have been popular as pets, they are currently listed as a "conditional species" in Florida and can no longer be bought or sold. They are also listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an Injurious Species under the Lacey Act, which means they cannot be imported into the United States or transported across state lines.

During cooler months, Burmese pythons can be found on levees that run along many of the canals. After a cold night, the snakes often lay on the land, soaking up the morning sun.

Spotting one may be easy. But catching and killing one … now that's a different story.

To learn more, go to pythonchal

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