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FLORIDA EVERGLADES — The state of Florida made headlines earlier this year when wildlife officials there announced its first-ever Python Challenge. More than 1,000 people paid the $25 registration fee and signed for the unique hunting competition, which runs from Jan. 12 to Feb. 10 in Everglades National Park. On the line is a grand prize of $1,500 for the person who kills the most pythons, plus a $1,000 prize for the hunter who bags the longest. Considering that Burmese pythons can reach up to 25 feet in length, the competition definitely earns the “Challenge” part of its name.
Burmese pythons are stealthy creatures with camouflaged skin, so participants initially struggled to have success. Even with professional hunters in the mix, only about a dozen snakes had been bagged in the competition’s first week. But it’s estimated that there are tens of thousands of pythons in the Everglades, so it was only a matter of time before the hunters hit their stride. As of Feb. 1, 41 pythons had been reported.
While the idea of a python hunt may bring to mind the controversial “rattlesnake roundups” and “bunny bashes” of the past, the Python Challenge has an important ecological mission. The Burmese python is an invasive nonnative species that is decimating many of the other species living in the Everglades. They were first found in Everglades National Park in the late ’70s, presumably pets that were released there by owners who no longer wanted them. By 2000, they were considered an established species.
The Everglades has proven to be an ideal habitat for the pythons. They are reproducing at a rapid rate, and the rest of the ecosystem is feeling the tragic effects. Endangered species like the wood stork and the Key Largo wood rat often fall prey, and research suggests that the voracious snakes have caused populations of foxes, bobcats, opossums and raccoons to virtually vanish from many areas. Even larger animals are in danger — a 16-foot python caught a few months ago had a 76-pound deer in its stomach.
The python invasion is a full-scale emergency for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, so it organized the Challenge to build awareness of the problem and educate hunters on how to help eradicate the species. Each python caught in the Challenge is turned over to researchers at the University of Florida. They carefully examine each snake to learn more about their eating habits and the menacing role they are playing in the fragile ecosystem of the Everglades.
What is your take? Is the Python Challenge an effective way to educate the public and help eradicate an invasive species? Would you ever take part in a hunt like this?
Grant Olsen joined the ksl.com team in 2012. He covers travel, outdoor adventures and other interesting things. Contact him at email@example.com.