EVERGLADES — Florida is turning to cold hard cash to lure adventure seekers into the Everglades to bag a Burmese python, the state's slithering non-native enemy No. 1.
Dubbed the Python Challenge, the month-long contest will award $1,000 for the longest python and $1,500 for the most pythons caught between Jan. 12 and Feb. 10 in any of four hunting areas north of Everglades National Park and at the Big Cypress National Preserve.
All that would-be python hunters need to do is pay a $25 entry fee and take a 30-minute online training course. If they are under 18, the hunter must have a valid Florida hunting license and be accompanied by an adult. A separate contest is set up for the state's existing posse of some 70 permitted python hunters.
Pythons have been spreading through the Everglades for years, posing a threat to the sensitive ecosystem by preying on native species. Some estimates put their number in the tens of thousands. Last year, 272 pythons were removed from the wild, state figures show.
Florida has never had a Python Challenge before, but licensed hunters can take pythons if they come across one during other hunting seasons. The state has a reptiles season from March 4 through April 14 when pythons can be hunted.
"I'm not saying at this point they can be eradicated, but we want to control the population as much as possible," said Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
FWC is partnering with the University of Florida in Gainesville, The Nature Conservancy, The Future of Hunting in Florida, the Wildlife Foundation of Florida and Zoo Miami on the Python Challenge.
The event is about more than the thrill of the hunt. It's also aimed at raising public awareness about invasive species. Records of where the pythons are caught also will help advance research into the python plague.
A kickoff event is planned for Jan. 12 at the University of Florida's Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, which is having its invasive species open house that day. Prizes will be awarded Feb. 16 at an Awareness and Awards event with expert talks and exhibits at Zoo Miami.
"We believe public involvement is critical to getting our arms around this problem," Big Cypress National Preserve Superintendent Pedro Ramos said.
While Big Cypress is one of four wildlife management areas where pythons can be hunted for the contest, Ramos said he expects hunters will have a tough go of it because of the preserve's landscape. The contest will last only until Feb. 1 there to adhere to the preserve's hunt season.
"It may provide a better cover for those animals to hide," he said.
Other spots eligible for the Python Challenge are the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor, Holey Land and Rotenberger Wildlife Management Areas. Non-Burmese pythons and pythons caught outside of the four wildlife areas won't count. Hunters must use humane methods to kill a python.
One other wrinkle: A python submitted in more pieces than just with its head severed will not qualify for the longest snake contest but will count toward a hunter's python total — as one snake.