“Python Patrol Battles Invading Snakes”
The Florida Everglades are especially welcoming to an abundance of bird, mammal, amphibian, and reptile life. Alligators are not the only cold-blooded creatures found in Florida. The year-round climate is receptive to a multitude of turtles, snakes, lizards, and salamanders. There are however interlopers i.e., nonnative species that have migrated by a variety of means into southern Florida and the Everglades. Exotic species control falls under the management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which has been compiling and disseminating information about invasive species since 1994. Control of invasive species costs $500 million a year but 1,700,000 acres of land in South Florida remains infested.
Many species such as the innocent-looking Melaleuca tree, Brazilian pepper, and Burma reed although in plain sight are often unrecognized as being invasive. Others such as the Bromeliad beetle, Island apple snail and the Asiatic clam are aquatic and virtually invisible.
However there is one invading species that is neither innocuous, out of sight nor unrecognized and that specie is the semi-aquatic Burmese python which can reach nightmare-enducing lengths of between 16 to 23 feet and weigh up to 200 pounds. The snakes breed in early spring and the largest egg clutches found in the Everglades have numbered up to 83 although the average is 12-36.
The Python Patrol had its genesis in the spring 2009 as a response and acknowledgment that the snakes were present in the Florida Keys. Kristina Serbesoff-King, the Conservancy’s associate director of conservation in Florida said, “One of the endangered species in the Florida Keys is the Keys’ wood rat, and there’s between 100 and 200 of them left in the wild. And so they have a program to protect these animals, but they also track them. And so they put radio collars on these wood rats and they tract a portion of the population to see how it’s moving, you know, all these things that we want to know. The partners (a University of St. Andrews graduate student and a volunteer assistant studying federally endangered Key Largo wood rats) who were tracking them one night, they’ve realized that this male wood rat moved farther than any wood rat had ever moved. And so they went out to see what was up. And when they would the wood rat, what they actually found was a 7 1/2-foot long Burmese python because a wood rat was in its stomach.”
This startling discovery motivated and mobilized a number is disparate entities such as The Nature Conservancy and the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative into a coordinated effort to combat the acknowledged invasion.
There are two primary theories as to why Burmese pythons arrived in the Everglades. When Hurricane Andrew’s 150-mile-per-hour winds barreled across southern Florida in 1993 many pet stores which had legally sold nearly 112,000 snakes imported since 1990 (primarily Burmese pythons) were destroyed. The surviving snakes migrated to the Everglades. Also many irresponsible owners who bought the snakes because of their attractive color and apparently easy going nature abandoned the pythons in the Everglades when they quickly reached an uncontrollable size. Burmese pythons can often grow 7 feet yearly and if properly fed and have a life span which may exceed 20 years.
Today there are an estimated 100,000 Burmese pythons and other foreign snake species slithering around the Everglades and into the surrounding areas. The Python Patrol trains officials and citizens alike how to capture non-native snake species outside of the boundaries of the Everglades National Park with a specific focus on the Florida Keys.
Nature Conservancy biologist Cheryl Millett who heads the Python Patrol said, “The Python Patrol is important as a way to halt the spread of Burmese pythons out of the Everglades and into nearby conservation land. The Patrol is a perfect model for alerting people to report the snakes and training people who can respond to the discoveries in order to stop expansion of invasive pythons from the Everglades. That’s why were focusing on setting up a response network on the leading edges of the invasion-to contain and stop the spread. The goal is to contain the population of these snakes as much as possible.”
Anyone who sees an invasive species can call 1-888-I’veGot1. Citizens are encouraged to take photos when possible and leave capture and removal to trained experts. Millett said, “We have 24-hour response by law enforcement in 10 counties although anyone can leave a message. We ask the responders to consider safety first and then work to tire out the snake before they capture it. Luckily these pythons tire very quickly.” The counties where a Conservancy-trained responder is dispatched are: Monroe, Miami-Dade, Collier, Hendry, Broward, Palm Beach, Glades, Martin, St. Lucie and Okeechobee. “By capturing snakes in the counties on the edges of the major infestation in the park we may be able to stop the spread and prevent new breeding. And by capturing them in the park we hope to suppress the population.
“Today, more than 200 python capture responders have been trained, The response is being built throughout South Florida with more Python Patrol workshops being schedules. Early detection, rapid response is the best way to stop them from spreading.”
Serbesoff-Kind added that, “Prevention is always the most cost effective and efficient approach to addressing invasive species. It protects our native plants and animals and saves money by avoiding costly and difficult control efforts.”
“We encourage everyone to become more familiar with distinguishing invasive from native reptiles by taking the free online REDDY training offered by the University of Florida,” said Millett. The training is available at http://ufwildlife.ifas.ufl.edu/reddy.shtml and offers a certificate at the end of the 40-minute free training, plus ID and reporting handouts. Sightings can be filed on-line at I’veGot1.org. There is also an iPhone app available through iTunes called I’veGot1.
Alison Higgens former head of the Python Patrol in the Keys said, “We already know these pythons are eating some of the many endangered and rare species we have here in the Keys. We are trained to respond to already sighted pythons for the Keys where we don’t have a breeding population yet. We have a lot to protect. Only random snakes that are dumped or escaped, or snakes coming from the Everglades.” Because only one snake is being collected about every two months in the Keys, Conservancy scientists are confident the pythons aren’t breeding there. The problem is, as one snake hunter said, “You can be standing right on top of one of these animals with grass 6 inches tall and not see them.”
Higgens said The Nature Conservancy has a three-stage philosophy when it comes to animals released in the wild. The first step focuses on prevention-teaching people how to be responsible pet owners or creating opportunities for pet owners to hand over their exotic animals instead of releasing them into the wild.
The second step is early detection and rapid response-capturing invasive snakes before they have the chance to become breeding populations and this is what the Python Patrol is all about. The third step is controlling the invasive species so it doesn’t alter the natural ecosystem balance.
Python Patrol trainees are members of the Southwest Florida Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area, a partnership of landowners, organizations like FKEC and federal, state and local agencies. FKEC meter readers, linemen and other workers are in daily close proximity to areas where pythons may be lurking. To a great extent these employees are the eyes and ears of the Python Patrol in the Keys and play a vital if unsung and unrecognized role in the program.
Sara Hamilton, spokesperson for FKEC said, “Florida Keys Electric Cooperative is committed to protecting the fragile Florida Keys ecosystems. By working with local, state and national organizations such as the USGS, Exotic Task Force, and The Nature Conservancy the company ensures each employee with the knowledge and skills to protect and conserve our environment. As a company and as individual residents our workforce values our surroundings and is dedicated to preserving our surroundings.”
The training given to FKEC employees was well-received. Here’s a sampling.
Utility Forrester Jason Richards said, “The hands-on training Sara (Hamilton) and I received was very informative and helpful. I had no idea of the way these pythons can populate so quickly and how much of an impact they are making to our lands. The handson training was excellent. I myself am not really comfortable with snakes but I thought the instructors did very well in teaching me the techniques to handle them. (I’m) not sure if I want to try and tackle an eight-footer on my own but now I know what to do to assist. Until that day I have not had any encounters on my own but I am more observant to my surroundings when working in the right-of-way. I appreciate what my partners are doing and will help whenever called upon.”
Meter reader Tom Sawyer said, “It’s a valuable class. There’s a lot to be learned. There’s a lot out there that you’re not aware of. It brings you up to speed.”
Meter reader Dan Raber said, “It was very iformative especially when possibly encountering pythons. I’m walking in knee-high grass every day looking at meters. Now, as far as pythons are concerned I know what to look for.”
Dogs have also been used with varying degrees of success to sniff out Burmese pythons in the Everglades. Python Pete is a beagle owned and trained by Everglades National Park biological science technician Lori Oberhofer.
“I’m working him under the assumption that the Burmese python has a specific odor. My plan is to use Pete along the park roads and trails but not out in the water.”
Oberhofer puts a captive live python into a mesh bag and drags it through a grass field for 50 feet to create a scent trail. Pete in a special harness follows. “He’s another tool in our tool box,” said Skip Snow, an Everglades wildlife biologist.
Auburn University researchers are using black Labs named Jake and Ivy to sniff out pythons. “It’s the first scientific approach to training dogs to find the snakes,” said Christina Romagosa a research fellow at Auburn’s Center for Forest Sustainability. “We like to think that this is just the beginning of something.”
When Jake and Ivy hunted in open areas alongside canals they found 92 percent of the snakes while people found 64 percent. The dogs could even spot pythons in the water and underground. “The dogs blew the people out of the water,” said handler Bart Rogers.
The dogs were taught to sit about 15 feet away from a discovered snake. Even with that clue the human trackers still struggled to find the pythons. “Their camouflage is so good the snake would basically have to move or stick its head up at us before we knew it was there,” said Rogers. However until more funding is supplied the program is on hold.
Government at the state and federal level is flexing its legislative muscles. In 2010 the Florida Legislator adopted a Conservancy-backed measure prohibiting personal possession of 7 large constrictors and 1 large monitor lizard. In January 2012 U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced a new rule that will ban the importation and interstate transportation of 4 snake species that have begun to cause environmental harm in the Everglades. According to the rule, the Burmese python, yellow anaconda and northern and southern African pythons will be listed as “injurious wildlife” under the Lacey Act which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses to manage non-native species. People who owned these species before July 1, 2010 may keep them.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will now allow hunters to access state-managed lands around the Everglades in order to capture and remove pythons. Previously only those with a ‘reptile-of-concern’ permit were allowed to hunt these snakes but the growing problem has prompted a revision of this rule. Now a specially created season has been introduced that allows hunters with a valid hunting license to access the regions from early March to mid-April.
Underscoring the deleterious effects Burmese have had in the Everglades a report issued in January 2012 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that sightings of medium-sized mammals such as racoons, opossums, white-tailed deer and bobcats were down by as much as 99 percent in areas where pythons and other large, non-native snakes were known to be lurking.
“Right now imported species are innocent until proven guilty,” said Kris Serbesoff-King. “As a nation we need to focus on pre-importation screening-that is to say looking at what will likely be a small number of non-native imported wildlife that could go on to be harmful to the lands and waters life depends on. Prevention is critical. We have to figure out what the next Burmese python could be. Unfortunately, it might already be out there.”