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Rep. Francis Rooney traded in his slacks and suit coat for snake chaps and a headlamp as the first-term congressman from Naples accompanied python hunters on a nighttime excursion through the Everglades. 

For 4½ hours Thursday, the group — peering into the black from atop pickup trucks — searched the brush just east of the Collier County line and north of U.S. 41 hoping to spot, catch and kill the invasive snakes, which experts say are threatening to upend the Southwest Florida ecosystem.

Rooney's view: Pythons, Florida do not mix

"I thought it went great," Rooney, R-Naples, said Friday. "The hunters found five snakes, two big ones, 7 or 8 feet, two medium ones. And we had one little fella."

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Rooney said he wanted to tag along for the hunt — which was conducted under the auspices of the South Florida Water Management District and lasted from sundown to midnight — to raise awareness for the growing problem the Burmese pythons pose to the state.

The snakes can grow longer than 20 feet and eat raccoons, rabbits, wading birds, and sometimes alligators and deer. One study blamed the pythons for a 90 percent decline in small mammals in Everglades National Park.

More: Eco-warriors use brains, brawn to fight python menace

"It really shows ... what a big challenge it's going to be to eradicate these resilient, aggressive predators," Rooney said. "What they were telling me last night is there are hardly any rodents or small animals left in the lower Everglades. And the consequences of that are quite dire."

As a result, larger animals would be forced farther north to more densely populated areas, and the snakes would follow, Rooney said.

"And we'll wind up with an Everglades that doesn't have any birds or animals in it, just water," he said.

To combat the python invasion, the SFWMD launched a "Python Elimination Program" earlier this year. 

The pilot phase of the program, which ran from March 25 through June 1, "paid out more than $25,000 in bounties and about $24,000 in hourly wages for about 3,000 hours the hunters spent seeking and eliminating the snakes," the district said in a news release in June.

More: Florida's lieutenant governor heads into Everglades to hunt pythons

Hunters are paid $8.10 per hour and receive bounty pay for the snakes they catch — $50 for the first 4 feet of the python and $25 for every foot after that, said Randy Smith, a district spokesman.

The SFWMD's governing board renewed the program after the pilot phase netted 158 snakes.

Since June 17, hunters in Broward, Collier and Miami-Dade counties are back on the prowl and will continue to search for pythons through the end of the budget year on Sept. 30 or until money for the program runs out.

District coffers had about $125,000 left mid-June for the program and of that about half remains today, Smith said. As of Wednesday, hunters had eliminated 421 snakes, according to the district's website.

More: Florida to hire more python hunters, expand their territory

Rooney said it's important for the state to continue to fund the program and "maybe even expand it, get some more hunters going."

"We're going to work to try to get the Department of Interior to allow hunting on the national park," he said. "Typically hunting's not allowed on the national park, only trapping, but this is a pretty unique situation. We really can't trap these things."

 

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