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Florida kicks off Python Challenge, a snake hunt

Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 09:23 AM

Florida has unleashed a thrill-seeking public on the Burmese python, an invasive species that has set up house in the Florida Everglades and surrounding wildlife management areas in the past decade or so.

Nearly 800 people preregistered for the inaugural Python Challenge, which began at 1 p.m. Saturday and lasts until midnight Feb. 10. A couple hundred more signed up on Saturday, said Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

By the end of Saturday, Segelson said, likely more than 1,000 snake hunters, some experienced and many not, had paid the $25 entry fee and signed up for the hunt.

Based on results from the first weekend, a lot more people need to sign up to appreciably diminish a python population estimated in the tens of thousands.

By 4 p.m. Monday, hunters had turned in 11 dead snakes to the wildlife commission.

"I didn't see any snakes, much less Burmese pythons," Mark Reynolds, of Seffner, said Monday morning. "I saw plenty of alligators and birds and fish, but not a single snake of any kind."

Reynolds headed to the Big Cypress National Preserve on Saturday afternoon, set up camp and lit out in search of the big snakes. He said he cruised up and down dirt roads in Big Cypress, looking along banks of canals, thinking snakes would be out basking in the sun.

They weren't.

His quest may be done for the weekend, but it's not over, he said. He plans to make another trip or two to the region in hopes of finding pythons. Such a trip could be fruitful: The contest offers $1,500 for the most snakes, $1,000 for the largest.

"My plans are to go back again," he said. "I'm not expecting to see anything, but if I do, it'll be a bonus."

The snakes can grow to more than 20 feet in length. The idea behind the roundup is to put a dent in the population, which is stealing food from indigenous creatures and killing some.

Burmese pythons can be large, but they are well camouflaged in the swamps and hammocks of the wildlife management areas that ring the Everglades.

Hunters who have registered for the contest hail from 30 states, from as far away as California and Michigan. Besides removing unwanted reptiles from Florida's wilderness, the Python Challenge is designed to raise public awareness of the problem and give biologists data they need to more fully understand how, where and why pythons are thriving.

"The 2013 Python Challenge is an unprecedented effort to focus public interest, support and direct involvement to help deal with Burmese pythons," said wildlife commission Chairman Kenneth Wright on Saturday at a news conference in Davie. "Floridians and people from all across the United States truly care about the Florida Everglades, and they are clearly eager to help us better understand and solve this problem."

About a dozen hunters showed up Saturday morning in South Florida for last-minute training on things such as gun safety, hydration and avoiding sunburn. Many hunters bypassed the ceremonial kickoff, opting to go straight into the wild.

Harvesting snakes means killing them, and there are by-the-book ways to do that, mostly a bullet in the top of the head.

Decapitating the beast is not really recommended, because, biologists say, the brain of a python remains active for hours after it is separated from the body and experiences excruciating pain in that time.

When dropping off a harvested Burmese python to be counted, hunters are being asked for details such as the GPS location of the catch, what habitat the snake was in and other details.

The python arrived in the Sunshine State as an exotic pet. If regularly fed, they tend to grow and grow. Some owners couldn't handle a hungry snake the length of their sectional couch. So snakes were freed in the Everglades, where they found one another and established populations.

The burgeoning python population in the Everglades prompted a state law in recent years against buying and selling Burmese pythons for use as pets and a federal law banning the import or interstate sale of pythons.

kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760