Florida's python problem: Bring in the bounty hunters

There could be a bounty on the head -- and frighteningly long body -- of the Burmese python, serpent scourge of the Everglades.

State wildlife managers on Thursday informally ran the bounty idea by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar before his tour of the Everglades. Salazar, who also was given the opportunity to examine a live 16-footer captured in Everglades National Park, agreed it was worth looking into.

''If we don't get on top of this, they're going to eradicate the indigenous species of the Everglades,'' said Rodney Barreto, chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "They have no enemies once they get past six feet long.''

For now, the plan is sketchy and no lock. Virtually all the details remain to be worked out -- from the value of a carcass to the rules of who could hunt and where. No guns or hunting are allowed, for instance, in Everglades National Park, epicenter of the python invasion.

Over the last decade, park biologists have documented pythons breeding, eating everything from birds to bobcats, and booming in population. The latest rough estimate: 150,000. Hundreds of the giant constrictors also have been captured well north of the park's Tamiami Trail boundary.

State wildlife managers had been discussing a bounty as an option for controlling the spread of the snakes. But Barreto said managers of federal lands, which include Everglades National Park and the Big Cypress National Preserve, had been cool to the idea. Barreto, who heads a Miami lobbying firm, said he'd be willing to put up $10,000 of his own to kick-start a program, even if it was confined initially to state lands.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who accompanied Salazar on the tour, agreed some sort of bounty system might produce a "positive outcome.''

Bounties for animals designated ''nuisances,'' including some native species such as cougars, have a long and controversial history in many western states such as Colorado, where Salazar hails from. Sam Hamilton, regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said they have also been used successfully to control exotic invaders — most notably the nutria, a large South American rodent that plagues Louisiana.

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