This just in from Washington: The Feds will not only join Florida's great snake hunt, but will expand it to include aerial surveillance and research into the lifestyles of feral Burmese pythons suspected to be lying low, yet waiting to strike, in Everglades National Park and other federal lands.
Earlier this week, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) convened a state-led task force of bounty hunters to chase pythons that aren't in national parks, preserves, or refuges. On Friday morning, that hunt yielded its first catch: Three bounty hunters caught a nine-foot python in Broward County.
When it comes to national parks, however, hunting is not allowed. But the newly announced federal program supersedes that rule.
An estimated 150,000 pythons are in the Everglades and elsewhere in south Florida.
"Burmese pythons are an invasive species that have no place in the Everglades and threaten its delicate ecosystem," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement Friday. "We are committed to aggressively combating this threat, including having trained and well-supervised volunteers hunt down and remove snakes."
The statement did not include a price tag for the program, and calls to the Interior Department were not returned by time of writing.
The July 1 death of a Florida toddler from the grip of an escaped pet python and last week's congressional testimony by Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D) have put the python problem on the national political radar.
The new federal program will include a hunt, research into ways to attract and trap the "cryptic" creatures, unmanned aerial surveillance, and thermal imaging, as well as public-education measures. "There is no one silver bullet," said Paul Souza, a field supervisor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in the statement announcing the program.
Snake keepers applaud the tack to actually get feet into the swamp to chase down the elusive creatures, which can grow up to 20 feet long and swallow a deer. But they also worry about political and scientific "cherry-picking" of the python issue to boost federal research grants. Such research could be used to increase regulation, they say, which could affect the ability of Americans to keep exotic animals like snakes as pets.
"All these Florida politicians want to be in the position to be called the champion of the Everglades, because there's billions of dollars of Everglades restoration money at stake here," says Andrew Wyatt, president of the US Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK). "These guys [including researchers] are seriously invested in making Burmese pythons a career for themselves."