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Python hunters break records after state agencies combine forces

Karl Schneider
Naples Daily News

Less than a year after two state agencies combined efforts to remove invasive snakes from the Everglades, contractors caught a record number of Burmese pythons.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Executive Director Eric Sutton spoke at a Southwest Florida Water Management District meeting Thursday to update the district’s board on the progress of the python elimination program.

“I’m here today to tell you we have achieved what we set out to do a year ago, but we also have the same goal moving forward,” Sutton said. “We’re unified, but our mission remains removing as many invasive species, Burmese pythons, as we can.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis challenged the two state agencies to step up efforts in the fight against invasive pythons, and Sutton said they've stepped up.

A moonless night offers an other-worldly view of the stary sky. After the night of hunting Burmese pythons, Donna Kalil and her daughter Deanna Kalil paused for a portrait in the Everglades west of Miami on Monday, October 28, 2019.

FWC and the district’s combined efforts removed nearly 2,000 invasive pythons in the first eight months of 2020 surpassing 2019 totals. As of mid-October, the teams removed nearly 4,000 snakes bringing the total snakes removed since the program’s inception in 2017 to 6,278.

“That’s also bad news by the way, I just want to point out that there’s that many snakes,” he said.

'This is my calling.' Everglades python hunter brings her passion to bear in fight against invasive species

Invasive Burmese pythons are decimating small mammal populations in the Everglades. A 2015 study on the effects pythons have on the marsh rabbit population in the Everglades gave a dismal outlook.

The snakes pose a great risk to the overall ecology of the Everglades, the study says. Researchers concluded that of the total number of marsh rabbits tracked for the experiment, 77% were killed by pythons.

Breeders and owners introduced pythons to the Everglades by dumping the unwanted snakes into the wild.

Donna Kalil and her daughter Deanna Kalil hunt for Burmese pythons in the Everglades west of Miami on Monday October, 28, 2019. Donna is part of the South Florida Water Management District's python hunting team. She has pulled hundreds of the invasive snakes from the Everglades. The duo captured three snakes on this evening.

The combined team hardly missed a beat amid the coronavirus pandemic, re-engineering the system to commit to the removal goals, he said.

One hunter, Donna Kalil, said that while she still gets out to hunt, it’s been a bit tougher with the COVID restrictions. She said they can’t take as many volunteers along, meaning less eyes helping spot the elusive snakes, but that hasn’t stopped her.

“I caught a 14-footer just last month that I would’ve missed had I not had a volunteer with me searching on the other side of my truck,” she said. “It’s really important to have those volunteers and I hope after COVID we can have more volunteers to join us.”

More:Hunters wrangle 80 Burmese pythons in unique Florida challenge

Kalil, one of the first to sign up with the district, recently caught 52 snakes in a matter of three days, she said, so it’s not all slow going. She found an area with a nest nearby and the snakes just kept coming.

“It was a thrill to come across them,” she said. “It literally started with one on (U.S.) 41 and we stopped to look in area and there were its brothers and sisters in the grass, the bushes, the trees and crossing the canal.”

Female Burmese pythons can carry between 50-100 eggs, district board member Ron Bergeron said.

“It’s a serious problem,” he said, “especially since pythons can get 20 feet long and actually destroy the whole natural food chain.”

Kalil, who operates the Everglades Avenger Team, said about 450 pythons have left the Everglades in her truck.  The merger has been good for the elimination program since the National Park System has opened access to both FWC and the district.

“It’s good that we are all out on the same lands,” she said. “We have access to the lands equally and that’s a good thing. Now, we just continue what we are doing and don’t let up.”

At Thursday’s meeting, Sutton outlined innovations in the removal program including a near-infrared camera to help detect pythons in the field and detection dogs trained to find the invasive snakes.

Researchers with imec and the University of Central Florida set up a prototype of the hyperspectral camera atop a python hunter's SUV.

More:Burmese python research partnership in Naples expands

Two dogs are being field tested with one set to go out for a field test in Miami-Dade.

“The dogs will be utilized in the fringe areas kind of on the edges of where we know snakes to be because those are really the good snakes to get to try to keep them from expanding while our contractors work at the heart of it,” Sutton said.

In January, the 2021 Python Elimination Challenge, or Python Bowl, will kick off. Last year’s Python Bowl rewarded top hunters with thousands of dollars and an ATV.

“Governor DeSantis applauds the hard work of FWC and the SFWMD for their continued efforts to remove invasive Burmese pythons from the Everglades,” spokesman Cody McCloud wrote in an email. “The governor is pleased that the removal program is yielding results, and he looks forward to continuing to work with state agencies and partners to preserve and restore Florida’s environment.”

Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Send tips and comments to kschneider@gannett.com. Follow on Twitter @karlstartswithk