Python hunt in Everglades
Interview with a reptile breeder/biologist.
COLLIER COUNTY — A python patrol could soon be on the trail of a slithering menace in Southwest Florida.
For years, pythons have been spreading across the Everglades, raising worries about how the non-native invaders might disrupt the South Florida ecosystem.
State and federal lawmakers have moved to ban the snakes, and licensed Florida hunters, starting today, are allowed to target pythons in three state-managed areas around the Everglades.
But invasive species experts in Southwest Florida are talking about a different sort of strike.
They say they don’t know enough about where people are spotting pythons, hamstringing efforts to root them out.
”We need to fix that,” said Greg Curry, a resource manager who specializes in exotic species management at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Southwest Florida CISMA, which stands for Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area, hopes to do just that.
The partnership of local, state and federal land managers, landowners and environmental groups is laying the groundwork for a more coordinated system of responding to python sightings.
“We’re just getting started,” said CISMA member Mike Knight, invasive species task force coordinator for Audubon of Florida at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
Right now, there is no one agency that is keeping track of python reports, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Capt. Jayson Horadam said.
“They just keep coming,” he said.
Cold weather this winter has lured the snakes out of their shadowy hiding places and into the sun to bask — making them more easy to find.
That’s just what python hunter Daryl Thompson is counting on.
Thompson, a fourth generation Floridian from Winter Haven, said he sees the hunt as a chance to help eradicate an ecological nuisance.
“The cold weather is going to be a big bonus,” Thompson said.
The temporary python season runs through April 16. Hunters must euthanize any pythons they catch and report details about the pythons to the Conservation Commission within 36 hours.
There will be no python hunting at Collier-Seminole State Park on U.S. 41 East, but python reports are on the rise there, Florida Park Service Jessica Sims said.
Rangers have recorded seven python sightings since last November compared to just two in January and February 2009, she said.
Curry, at Rookery Bay, made a dramatic find last week when he spotted three pythons — including an 11-footer — from the seat of a tractor he was using to mow tall grasses behind the Marco Island Executive Airport.
Along Shell Island Road, which accesses part of the reserve between Naples and Marco Island, crews recently found a python skin in a gopher tortoise burrow.
“That opens up a whole new can of worms,” Rookery Bay stewardship coordinator Jeff Carter said.
Creatures other than gopher tortoises often use the tortoise burrows for refuge, but Carter said a python represents a potential predator for the gopher tortoise, already a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
When pythons are spotted at Rookery Bay, it gets Beth Sterchi’s attention. She lives practically around the corner and has python stories of her own to tell.
Last year, she found what she is sure were two 4-foot pythons — one in her yard and one curled up on a ledge under her deck.
“I looked up and said, ‘Oh my God, is that a snake?”’ said Sterchi, who lives on Barefoot Williams Road in East Naples.
News of the Rookery Bay find has put Sterchi on high alert again.
She worries about the safety of her yorkshire terrier and miniature poodle, both under 10 pounds, and plans to watch where she steps in the yard.
“I’m going to keep my eyes open, you never know,” Sterchi said.
Sterchi represents just the sort of help Knight, at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, is hoping to harness.
He said Audubon is setting up a pilot program in Southwest Florida for wildlife watchers to report sightings of exotic species — pythons included.
“They can be the eyes and ears that we need,” Knight said.
Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/
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To report python sightings, go to www.floridainvasives.org/Southwest/ or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.