Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday that the state is reviving its popular python roundup competition, this time dubbing it the “Python Bowl” because it will be held in conjunction with the Super Bowl in Miami.
DeSantis invited would-be competitors to sign up for the contest, which will take place from Jan. 10 to Jan. 19. And he promised there will be more such contests in the future.
“We’re basically resurrecting this python challenge,” he said during a news conference. “It had been every three years, but I’m directing (the state agencies) to do this annually.”
DeSantis has made python eradication one of his signature environmental issues, calling for both state agencies in charge of eliminating the invasive snakes, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the South Florida Water Management District, to double the number of contract hunters.
But pythons are ambush hunters, so skilled at camouflage that they are champions at hide-and-seek. Many of the professional hunters will spend hours scouring the state’s most famous marsh for snakes and come up empty-handed.
The first python spotted in the Everglades turned up in 1979. The colorful reptiles, which can grow to 20 feet long, were extremely popular with snake-fanciers. Between 1999‐2006, federal importation data showed that more than 99,000 individual Burmese pythons were imported to the U.S. Some got loose and began to breed in the wild.
Everglades biologists have been sounding the alarm about the invasion of exotic species such as the python for more than two decades. The problem captured worldwide attention in 2005 when an Everglades National Park employee snapped photos of a python that had died while attempting to swallow an alligator. The images went viral.
As the population of hungry pythons expanded, the number of native mammals declined. A 2012 study found that between 2003 and 2011, the areas where pythons had proliferated saw a 99 percent decrease in raccoons, a 98 percent drop in opossums, a 94 percent drop in white-tailed deer and an 87 percent falloff for bobcats.
“We observed no rabbits or foxes,” the report noted.
In 2013, state wildlife commissioners held the first amateur python roundup. The event drew global publicity and 1,500 people from 38 states and Canada signed up. Many were wannabe reality TV stars who instead of catching snakes wound up sunburned, dazed and dehydrated.
They caught only 68 pythons. A single female python could replace that many with just one clutch of eggs. However, state officials declared it a success because it raised public perception of the problem and also provided a wealth of scientific data for biologists.
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A 2016 reprise drew fewer hunters — about 600 — for the monthlong competition for such rewards as a $5,000 grand prize for killing the most pythons and $3,000 for the longest one. The catch that year, 106 pythons, was higher than the previous contest, but still not many compared to the estimated thousands still slithering through the Everglades.
The agencies involved are still sorting out what the prizes will be this time around, according to Carli Segelson of the state wildlife commission, but they will include two Tracker Off-Road All-Terrain Vehicles, contributed by Bass Pro Shops. And a competitor in the 2013 challenge, former wildlife commissioner Ron “Alligator Ron” Bergeron, announced at Thursday’s news conference that he’s personally donating $10,000 to the prize pot.
Would-be competitors cannot just show up on the first day of the hunt and start wandering through the wilderness with a machete. To register, contestants must first complete online training. There are also opportunities for optional in-person training sessions that would include hands-on practice in safe capturing techniques, state officials said.
Because next month’s event is being held in conjunction with the Super Bowl, organizers gave DeSantis a football covered in python skin rather than pigskin. He promised to display it in his office right next to the football he received from Super Bowl organizers.
To sign up for the “Python Bowl,” click here: https://flpythonchallenge.org/