Florida python hunting season comes to an end

— Florida's first python hunting season ends Saturday with no reptiles being reported captured and killed, wildlife officials said Friday.

The season opened March 8 for anyone with a hunting license who paid a $26 permit fee to hunt down the nonnative reptiles on state-managed lands around the Everglades in South Florida.

In addition to Burmese pythons, hunters also were allowed to kill Indian and African rock pythons, and green anacondas and Nile monitor lizards.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says the state's unseasonably cold winter weather is believed to have killed up to 50 percent of the pythons.

"It hammered them," said Scott Hardin, exotic species coordinator.

Hardin said nine out of 10 pythons that scientists had been tracking with radio collars in Everglades National Park apparently died from the weather.

However, he said, the species remains a threat to the state. Estimates indicate there could be tens of thousands of pythons slithering around the Everglades.

Officials believe pet owners have freed their snakes and reptiles into the wild once they became too big to keep. They also think some Burmese pythons may have escaped in 1992 from pet shops battered by Hurricane Andrew and have been reproducing ever since.

The constrictors can produce up to 100 eggs at a time, and can grow to 26 feet and weigh more than 200 pounds. They have few natural predators in Florida and are feeding on native wildlife, including endangered species.

The state held a training session in February to teach hunters how to identify, stalk and capture the reptiles.

A state-sanctioned hunting program continues for about 15 permitted snake experts. Since it was launched in July, the experts have captured and killed 52 pythons.

Scientists in South Carolina have been studying seven Florida-caught pythons for about a year to determine if the reptiles can survive in climates that far north and possibly spread throughout the Southeast.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a ban on the import and transport of Burmese pythons into the country, along with eight other giant constrictor snakes. A public comment period on the proposal ends May 11.

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Associated Press Writer Meg Kinnard contributed to this report from Columbia, S.C.

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On The Net:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: http://myfwc.com/WILDLIFEHABITATs/Nonnative_BurmesePython.htm

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