Big but nearly invisible in the wild, officials give up on evicting pythons from Everglades

Only in Florida can a search for one invasive monster lead to the discovery of another.

On a balmy Sunday recently, a group of volunteers called Swamp Apes was searching for pythons in Everglades National Park when it stumbled on something worse: a Nile crocodile, lurking in a canal near Miami suburbs.

It was an all-points alarm, prompting an emergency response by experts from the national park, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the University of Florida. They joined the Swamp Apes and wrestled the reptile out of the canal. Nile crocs are highly aggressive man-eaters known to take down huge prey in Africa, and officials worried that the one in the canal might be breeding in the swamp since it was first spotted two years ago.

Worrying is what Florida wildlife officials often do when it comes to invasive species. The state is being overrun by animals, insects and plants that should not be there, costing Floridians half a billion dollars each year in, among other things, damaged orange groves, maimed pets and dead fish in water where plants have depleted the oxygen.

Florida spends $50 million a year just to eradicate invasive weeds from fields, pastures and canals. Yet, the problem is getting worse.

“What have we learned?” said Linda Friar, a spokeswoman for Everglades National Park. “What strategy do we have in place for stopping these species from being brought here? Are we educating the public well enough? I don’t know.”

Native Florida alligators are already in a death match with giant Burmese pythons and other python species to sit atop the food chain. On top of that is a rogues’ gallery of bad-to-the-bone lizards, fish and frogs. They include the Argentine tegu, which eats sea turtle eggs; the Nile monitor lizard, which kills house pets; the Cuban tree frog, which dines on other frogs; and the greedy lionfish, which is eating scores of native fish.

Last year, Florida organized a month-long hunt, called the Python Challenge, and enlisted volunteers to help remove its top-priority invasive species from the Everglades. When it was over, the state fish and wildlife commission and other experts came to this conclusion: Evicting the snakes is impossible.

Up to 100,000 pythons are estimated to be living in the Everglades, and more than 1,500 thrill-seekers, amateurs and skilled hunters who flocked to the event from across the country caught only 68.

Pythons are excellent at stealth. Trackers with the U.S. Geological Survey have stood a few feet from them — with radio transmitters — and failed to see them. In the challenge, 24 hunters with permits caught 42 snakes. More than 1,500 others caught 26.

“That was the key . . . result and shows why we have such a serious problem,” said Frank J. Mazzotti, a University of Florida ecology and biology professor. “How do you win a war if you can’t find your enemy? You really have to know what you’re doing to even have a low level of detection.”

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission ruled out a second challenge this year, partly because pythons are so hard to spot, let alone catch.

“Definitely, we’re understanding that better-trained people are going to do this,” said Kristen Sommers, the commission’s leader of exotic-species coordination. Officials are not sure of the next step. “If we did it again, what would it look like?”

Critics called the challenge a flop, but Mazzotti and a team of biologists who conducted necropsies on the snakes disagreed. At a university lab in Lauderhill, Fla., they faced dissecting a huge pile of giant snakes, more than any of them had seen at one time.

For the first time, they examined animals as if on an assembly line — one person slicing snakes open, another examining stomach contents, a third studying sex organs.

It was “the same thing Henry Ford did for making automobiles,” said Mazzotti, who oversaw the work. “Instead of putting them together, we took them apart.”

They were looking for signs that pythons are behind the disappearance of animals in the Everglades. For a 2012 study, researchers who counted Everglades National Park mammals found that 99 percent of raccoons have disappeared since pythons became established. Marsh rabbits and foxes completely vanished.

Over a decade ending in 2009, federal and state agencies spent $100 million on the recovery of wood storks, a staple of the python’s diet.

But the necropsies did not find evidence that the 68 pythons ate such animals. Caught throughout the Everglades, except in the national park, where their capture for monetary gain is forbidden, they feasted largely on cotton rats.

Still, the commission wants to evict as many snakes as possible, and it would like to provide some type of incentive to groups such as Florida Python Hunters, led by Ruben Ramirez, who caught 18 snakes to win the challenge’s top prize.

But there is no money in the budget to pay them, Sommers said. The commission has turned to a Python Patrol of enthusiasts who are trained to identify and possibly remove snakes.

As for criticism of the Python Challenge, federal and state wildlife officials dismissed it. “Our measure of success wasn’t the same as what the public had,” Sommers said.

Raising public awareness was the main priority, “and we did that,” she said. “Eight million people worldwide read or saw something related to it.”

And the necropsies already answered one odd question from Floridians: Is it okay to eat snake meat? Mercury levels varied in the dead snakes and were lower, on average, than levels in pythons captured earlier in Everglades National Park.

But no, Sommers said, don’t eat the pythons.

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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