Python Challenge open to fearless hunters

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Burmese Python
This Burmese python was captured in Everglades National Park in Florida, where the invasive snakes have established a large breeding population. (Susan Jewell/USFWS)By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Burmese python Uploaded by Dolovis) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is looking for a few fearless hunters. But if you’re afraid of snakes, stay home.

From January 16 through February 14, Florida will host the 2016 Python Challenge. According to FWC Public Relations Specialist Lisa Thompson, the purpose of the Challenge is, “to engage the public in participating in Everglades conservation through invasive species removal and becoming part of the long-term solution to managing invasive wildlife in Florida.”

Not native

Burmese pythons, native to south Asia, were first detected in Everglades National Park in 1979. Since then, more than 2,000 have been removed from the park. The sources of these snakes include irresponsible pet owners and pet stores destroyed by hurricanes. In the only previous Python Challenge, hunters removed 68 pythons in 2013.

Predators

The problem is that pythons are large, ambush constrictors capable of killing and eating anything (including small humans) that lives in south Florida. From bird eggs, raccoons, opossums and great blue herons to white-tailed deer and alligators, pythons are equal opportunity predators.

Ecological havoc

In some parts of the park, small mammals have disappeared. Pythons wreak ecological havoc in south Florida’s subtropical environment.

Furthermore, the python’s basic biology suggests that the problem is long-term.

• Females can lay 30 to 40 eggs per year.

• Their bodies are cryptically colored so they blend in with the vegetation and are very difficult to find.

• Burmese pythons can grow up to 20 feet long, and they can live 20 years in captivity.

Collaborative effort

The 2016 Python Challenge is a collaborative effort by the FWC and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Foundation to rid south Florida of these destructive, invasive, exotic snakes.

Hunting

Though the goal of the Python Challenge is to eradicate them from south Florida, the hunt is not a free-for-all. Hunters must register, take an online class (including a mandatory quiz that hunters must score 80 percent or higher), and follow specific rules that outline where pythons can be captured and how they are to be transported.

Captured pythons (dead or alive) must be taken to an official Python Challenge drop-off point to be measured and weighed.

Though the Python Challenge makes perfect ecological sense, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) objects that Everglades National Park be part of the event. PEER executive director Jeff Ruch opposes the park’s involvement because hunting is illegal in national parks. Ruch argues that the park does not have the authority to allow a hunt in the Park.

Under review

Everglades National Park spokeswoman Linda Friar told me via telephone that the park’s role in the challenge is under review. One way around this conundrum would be for the Park to designate snake hunters as “agents of the National Park Service” for the purpose of python control.

Whether Everglades National Park will be part of the challenge has yet to be determined. Though pythons are among the largest and most terrifying invasive species plaguing the U.S., there are many others that take an ecological toll.

Food and competition

Like pythons, some eat native species. Some compete with native species for food or nesting sites. And some are just pests. Ironically, many were purposefully introduced with good intentions. For example, Asian multicolored lady beetles were introduced to control other insect pests. European starlings were introduced to remind early settlers of home. And multiflora rose and autumn olive seemed like good ideas when they were introduced more than 70 years ago to provide farmers with “living fences.”

Exotic species

Among the worst accidental examples of invasive, exotic species introductions are rats that reached oceanic islands via shipwrecks. About half of the extinctions of birds and reptiles on ocean islands can be blamed on rats.

If hunting large snakes (most in Florida are eight to 12 feet long) for a good cause sounds like a worthwhile challenge, plan a trip to the Sunshine State.

Registration fees

Registration fees range from $25 for individuals to $75 for teams of two to five hunters.

Prizes

Prizes range from $1,000 for the individual catching the longest python to $5,000 for the team that catches the most.

For more information, visit www.pythonchallenge.org.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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