Florida’s python patrol, which has notched nearly 3,000 captures of the exotic invader in two years, is about to get bigger.
Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged Wednesday to double funds for python removal this year and said the state will work with the federal government to expand access to Big Cypress National Preserve so that hunters can catch more snakes.
``We have been advancing python management policies for several years and there’s been some success but we need to do more,’’ DeSantis said today at Everglades Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale. He didn’t disclose the new budget for the snake elimination efforts.
Burmese pythons pose a huge threat to the Everglades ecosystem as they permeate the marshes, devouring wading bird eggs, small mammals and even alligators. For nearly two decades Pythons have been successful at reproducing in the wetlands because they have no predators. Females can lay up to 100 eggs a year.
Pythons first appeared in the Everglades in 1979 but the population only started to grow in the early 2000s. Some speculate that pythons that were kept as pets were released by frustrated owners and started breeding in the wild. Others say the infestation began after Hurricane Andrew smashed into a breeding facility in 1992.
Whatever the origin of Florida’s python problem, the slithery invaders’ numbers have grown exponentially ever since, to as many as an estimated 300,000. They are now considered the top predator at the Everglades, capable of devouring adult deer and blamed for nearly wiping out the population of small mammals in Everglades National Park.
For years, wildlife managers struggled to contain the snakes with traps and poisoned prey. In recent years, state officials have offered incentives for snake hunters, paying people for their catch.
In March 2017 the South Florida Water Management District launched a python elimination program that has been wildly successful among trappers. The program has eliminated nearly 3,000 pythons, with hunters getting paid a minimum wage hourly rate for up to 10 hours a day plus a bonus for the catch: $50 for each python measuring up to 4 feet plus $25 more for each foot measured above 4 feet. An additional $200 is paid for a nesting female. The district’s budget for the program this year is $225,000. It wasn’t immediately clear how much more money the state would devote to the program.
Python “agents” now mainly work on district lands in Miami-Dade, Broward, Collier, Hendry and Palm Beach counties.
DeSantis said it was important to expand access to more land in the state where trappers can catch pythons. He said details are currently being worked out with the Department of Interior for an access plan for python removal inside Big Cypress National Preserve, a vast swamp protecting over 729,000 acres of wetlands that are crucial for the survival of the Everglades.
``We are putting a lot of money into restoring the Everglades, we want to make sure that ecosystem is strong,’’ DeSantis said.
On a state and local level, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the Department of Agriculture agreed to allow for python removal to take place in all state parks where the snakes are found, adding 130,000 acres of land to snake hunting grounds. DeSantis also said he is asking local governments to grant access to local parks for python elimination.
Ron Bergeron, a longtime Everglades activist whom DeSantis named this year to a board seat at the water management district, said more people will be licensed to hunt pythons as efforts intensify. Bergeron, who calls himself Alligator Ron, recently caught a 16-foot female python — one of Florida’s largest ever, weighing more than 160 pounds - that was nesting beneath a home in Possum Head Camp with nearly 50 eggs.
Burmese pythons eat small endangered animals like the mangrove fox squirrel, the Key Largo woodrat, the wood stork, and the Key Largo cotton mouse, for example.
— ADRIANA BRASILEIRO