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Florida's second Everglades python hunt expected to bring hundreds of hunters

Published Jan. 16, 2016

The thousands of Burmese pythons slithering around the Everglades eating everything in sight have little reason to worry about this, but hundreds of hunters are descending on South Florida this weekend for the state wildlife commission's second Python Challenge.

The python hunt starts today and runs through Valentine's Day, with a $1,500 prize for catching the most snakes and $1,000 for the biggest snake. So far the contest has attracted only 573 hunters, a third as many as the first one did in 2013.

That first one drew 1,500 people from 38 states and Canada — many of them wannabe reality TV stars who instead of catching snakes wound up sunburned, dazed and dehydrated.

Pythons are ambush hunters, highly skilled at hiding, making them nearly impossible for a layman to spot. Despite the efforts of more than 1,000 hunters, only 68 pythons were found and killed — such a small number that a single female python could replace that many with a single clutch of eggs.

The point, though, was not to kill a lot of snakes. Instead, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials said, the hunt is a tool for raising awareness of the problem of invasive species.

"We knew then and know now that these events are not likely to remove large numbers of pythons," said Nick Wiley, the commission's executive director. "But any pythons that are removed will be helpful, and it reinforces the message that we need all hands on deck to help remove pythons from the Everglades while we earnestly seek more effective measures."

Meanwhile, scientists were able to collect some new data about the most aggressive invasive species in the state.

For instance, scientists found that pythons that had been killed before the 2013 hunt had eaten about 75 percent small mammals — raccoons, rabbits, foxes and so forth — and 25 percent birds, said University of Florida professor Frank Mazzotti. But pythons killed during the 2013 challenge had a mix of about 50-50 in their stomachs, he said.

The question now is why.

"Is it seasonal?" he asked. "Or have they eaten so many mammals that now they're eating a lot more birds?"

One hunter hoping to snag a big snake this year is a scientist — David Steen, a wildlife ecology professor at Auburn University. He hopes to live-tweet his hunting experience from his @AlongsideWild account, assuming his battery and cell phone signal stay strong.

Steen — hailed by Slate as "the best biologist on Twitter" — said he thinks he'll see some success at hunting pythons because he grew up tracking down snakes in the forest to study.

"This is the kind of work I've been doing my whole life," he said, although he conceded that he has little experience with pythons.

The most successful python hunter in Florida is Bobby Hill, a great-grandfather with a shotgun who works for the South Florida Water Management District. He has killed more than 300 and says he can smell the snakes. As a professional, he does not compete in the Python Challenge.

However, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, has said he'd be back for another try.

Nelson went snake-hunting in 2013 with state wildlife commissioner Ron "Alligator" Bergeron, a rodeo champion and developer. The machete-toting Nelson, 73, emerged from the swamps empty-handed that time. Bergeron subsequently helped the superintendent of Everglades National Park capture a mating pair.

The question of how the hunters will kill their pythons is one that has drawn the attention of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which this week sent the wildlife commission a letter urging that the hunters be told not to decapitate their snakes.

"When decapitated, pythons can remain alive and writhe in agony for hours," PETA officials said in a news release.

You might think PETA would lobby for the snakes to be captured alive, but not even PETA roots for pythons. The organization said it would prefer the hunters be armed with guns and blow their heads off. That way, the pythons die immediately.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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