January 15, 2013

Floridian Burmese Pythons Wanted Dead Or…Well, Just Dead

Burmese pythons have been slowly taking over the Florida Everglades since the late 1970s. The snake, native to Southeast Asia, was first discovered in 1979 and has been growing in numbers ever since. It’s likely that the snake was introduced by pet owners who tired of the reptile and set it free into the environment. Maybe the snake grew too large for the owner but, either way, it ended up in a part of the environment where it was never meant to be. By the year 2000, it became an unmanageable established species. Like most invasive non-natives, it has spread beyond the confines of the Everglades.

redOrbit recently reported about a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission pilot program (which started Saturday) called The 2013 Python Challenge. The contest’s mission is to encourage hunters to harvest as many non-native pythons as they can between January 12 and February 10of this year. With well over tens of thousands of the snakes invading the precious swamp, something must be done to work on damage control.

This nuisance non-native species is progressively upsetting the balance of the Everglades’ ecosystem. The python has been blamed for the decline in numbers of animals that are key to the delicate environment. The Challenge site states that the “non-venomous constrictor, the Burmese python preys on native Florida species of mammals, birds and reptiles, as well as nonnative species including black rats. They have eaten Key Largo woodrats, a federally endangered species.”

Many people, I’m sure, have seen the internet photos of pythons cut open, exposing the large deer inside the snake’s stomach. The Jacksonville ABC affiliate station reported a 76-pound deer found inside a 16-foot python killed in the Everglades. There are graphic photos via a link contained within that news story for those so inclined to see for themselves.

While the snakes do not grow as large in our climate as they do in their native lands, they are typically up to 10 feet long and larger than native Florida snake species. CNN reported that the largest snake killed to date was 17 feet long, 165 pounds, and contained 87 eggs.

The Python Challenge is not just a free-for-all. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is very clear on outlining strict guidelines for the contest. The hunting grounds are limited to 4 wildlife management areas and entrants must hold a license to participate. There is a $25 entry fee and anyone wishing to compete must complete specific training geared toward education and identification of the Burmese python. In addition, there is a Challenge Toolkit available for contestants to keep with them during the hunts. Any contestant harvesting any species besides the python is automatically disqualified from the challenge.

So what’s the draw, besides knowing you’re doing something good to help the Florida environment? The $1500 prize for harvesting the largest number of pythons, and the $1000 prize for harvesting the largest python. The participants have the option of keeping the skins of the snakes, although there are some companies that may be interesting in purchasing the skins of exceptional specimens.

It should seem pretty obvious that non-native species can destroy native habitat at a frighteningly rapid rate. Houston has a serious problem with the armored catfish, commonly known to aquarium enthusiasts as “plecos.” Again, as the fish outgrows its habitat inside the aquarium, pet owners let the fish loose in our bayous and waterways, creating a nuisance that is destroying the ecosystem as well as the banks of those waterways, causing an excessive amount of erosion.

In the state of Texas, “it is an offense to release into public waters, import, sell, transport, propagate, or possess any species, hybrid of a species, subspecies, eggs, seeds, or any part of any species defined as harmful or potentially harmful exotic fish, shellfish, or aquatic plant” except without permission of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, as stated in the Parks and Wildlife code Section 57.111.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will be analyzing the data collected during the Python Challenge as a tool to help them determine what further action should be pursued to help control the Burmese python and minimize its harmful effects on the ecosystem.

Image Credit: Heiko Kiera / Shutterstock

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