Game on: Crist orders python purgeby Dara Kam | July 15th, 2009
A python posse armed with clubs and machetes will start combing the Everglades for the supersized serpents this weekend.
Gov. Charlie Crist ordered the python bounty hunt Wednesday at the urging of two Florida congressmen who were in an uproar after one of the exotic snakes strangled a 2-year-old girl July 1 near Ocala.
That python was a pet and didn’t live in the Everglades. But the case called new attention to the plague of the oversized reptiles that have spread throughout South Florida’s marshes, gobbling wading birds and posing a danger to native wildlife.
Estimates of the python population in the Everglades range between 10,000 and 150,000. They can reach up to 20 feet in length and have long, curved teeth, along with the ability to squeeze their prey to death.
At Crist’s command, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has signed up three snake experts to begin the python purge in selected locations south of Lake Okeechobee. They include state-managed portions of the Everglades, along with the Holey Land and Rotenberger wildlife management areas in far western Palm Beach County.
Hunting is not permitted in Everglades National Park, where tens of thousands of pythons have invaded, but Crist has allowed the snake safari on adjacent state Everglades marshes.
Two caveats, however: The state is not yet asking for more volunteers. And the snake searchers cannot use firearms, explosives or traps to kill their quarry. They’ll have to use “hand-held instruments,” said wildlife commission spokeswoman Pat Behnke.
“You can maybe guess that some of them might be a club or a machete,” Behnke said.
Crist issued the order to commission Chairman Rodney Barreto after U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson stepped up demands that something be done about the pestilent pythons. Nelson filed a bill in February that would ban the import and interstate sale of any pythons, including the Burmese, which can reach up to 15 feet in length.
Nelson, a Democrat, asked U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday to organize the snake hunt. U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Tequesta, joined the crusade later in the day.
On Wednesday, Crist stepped in and ordered the posse to begin work on Friday.
The state’s three handpicked herpetologists have their work cut out for them, Behnke said. Snakes are inactive during the hot summer months and the safari likely will be conducted at night, she said. The posse will be allowed to take along up to five assistants each.
State wildlife experts have a Pied Piper-like plan in which they hope to drive the pythons north of the Everglades, where they would pose less of an ecological hazard. They’ll sign up three or four more snake experts to join the team and gather data on the snakes before killing them during the next three months.
After that, they will likely open the bountyhunting to other professionals, Behnke said.
Snake expert Greg Longhurst of Loxahatchee said pythons longer than 10 feet should be handled by at least two people. And he warned that even though the pythons aren’t venomous, “a bite is not going to be pain-free.”
Even animal rights activists aren’t feeling creepy about the searchand-destroy mission.
“We understand that the pythons are a serious problem in the Florida Everglades,” said Animal Rights Foundation of Florida spokesman Nick Atwood.
Professionals should know how to club the snakes to death humanely, Atwood said.
“But the last thing we want to see is a bounty or some sort of open season on these animals where members of the public will be going into open areas and killing everything that they find,” he said.
Staff writer Willie Howard contributed to this story.
This story was printed on page 1A of the July 16 edition of the Palm Beach Post.