Florida recruits ‘snake hunters’ in failing war against the Burmese python


Jenny Staletovich
Miami Herald
Wed, 08 Mar 2017 18:28 UTC

© JENNY STALETOVICH
Wildlife officers (left to right) James Bales, Sergio Najera, and Alexis Del Los Santos captured a 15-foot female Burmese python on Monday. The female was breeding with four other males — scientists call it a breeding ball — when the officers found her. They shot the female and two of the males. The other two escaped.

South Florida water managers may amp up the state’s failing war against the Burmese python with a new weapon: a paid python posse.

On Thursday, the South Florida Water Management District will consider a proposal to hire hunters, paying them by the hour, plus a bonus for every snake killed, as part of a two-month, $175,000 pilot project. Hunters would patrol only district land in Miami-Dade County, which includes the vast water conservation area where remote tree islands offer hiding places perfectly suited for the well-camouflaged snakes.

The district declined to provide more details until after the presentation is made to the governing board.

Controlling the pythons has vexed biologists and wildlife officers who have been outgunned by the slithery invaders, which can lay clutches of up to 50 eggs at a time. The snakes started turning up in the marshes, either dumped by unhappy owners or escapees from breeding facilities, in the 1980s, and by about 2000 were firmly established. In September, state wildlife officers confirmed that pythons had also spread to the Keys after they found hatchlings for the first time.

Over the years, biologists have tested a variety of strategies to contain the snakes, including releasing females outfitted with radio trackers to act as ‘Judas’ snakes, snake-sniffing dogs and an iPhone app that lets people immediately report a snake sighting. This past year, the state hired a pair of Irula tribesmen, whose ancestors helped hunt pythons to extinction in India, to track down snakes. And, while it failed to significantly reduce the number of snakes and was largely meant to enlighten the public, the state’s Python Challenge drew the most attention, with headlines around the world.

The district also happens to employ one of the state’s most prolific snake slayers, Bob Hill, who has killed hundreds of pythons since 2004.

Paying hunters to rid the conservation area of snakes is something that the Miccosukee Tribe, which has a perpetual lease on the land and uses the area for hunting and other cultural purposes, has long sought.

“The only way we are going to solve this problem is with the public help. Of course there will need to be strict controls on access. But I think it’s a great idea,” Truman Duncan, the tribe’s water resources director, wrote in an email. “Our Wildlife Officers only patrol Tribal lands. That leaves the majority of the Everglades with very little protection.”

In January, the tribe’s research coordinator surprised area scientists by saying the tribe was banning all research on its land because the tribe considered the snakes sacred. He told the Miami Herald that a change in leadership led to the decision. But last week, during a meeting of a district advisory committee, Duncan said the claim was untrue and that the coordinator had been let go.

“They are not sacred. The instructions are we are to kill them, not study them,” he said.

The tribe, Duncan said, will now only allow research on its land that does not require releasing snakes. In the last month, tribal wildlife officers have killed as many 10 snakes, including a 15-foot female discovered Monday wrapped in a ‘mating ball’ with four males. Officers killed the female and two of the males, but the other two escaped.

“They’re breeding, that’s the problem,” Duncan said at the meeting. “So kill them, don’t study them.”

https://sott.net/en344683

 

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