Everglades Python Challenge haul hits target with 50 snakes captured

Fifty snakes, with perhaps a handful yet to be officially tallied.

The haul from Florida’s much-ballyhooed Python Challenge, which wrapped up at midnight Sunday, may not sound impressive. After all, nearly 1,600 people signed up for a month-long hunt to win cash for catching an invasive species that has gobbled up everything from egrets to alligators in the Everglades.

In reality, the effort bagged pretty much what many scientists, reptile experts and Florida wildlife managers expected — lots of publicity, also known as public awareness, and lots of data for researchers. It also produced what may wind up ranking as a record monthly count of Burmese python skins, though the bounty hunt was never envisioned as a way to eradicate them.

Ultimately, the challenge wound up underlining the difficulty of controlling — even just seeing — an all-terrain predator whose camouflage-pattern skin and canny habits make it virtually invisible in the wild. Hunting pythons proved far more difficult than neophyte hunters and hype-happy out-of-town TV crews expected.

“People unfamiliar with the problem anticipated that pythons would be jumping out of the trees into the boats,” said Tom Rahill, a Plantation businessman and founder of “Swamp Apes,” a group of volunteers and veterans who waded and canoed across more than 100 miles of the Glades over 12 days to find 10 snakes. “I think some people were expecting to see snakes on levees waving signs, ‘Welcome to the Everglades.’ “

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which sponsored the bounty hunt offering up to $1,500 in cash for the most snakes caught, won’t release the final numbers until an awards ceremony scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at ZooMiami. On Monday, the total stood at 50, but FWC spokeswoman Carli Segelson said that could rise with some yet-to-be-catalogued captures.

Even at 50, the catch would rank among the highest ever recorded in a single month, said Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida wildlife ecologist who worked with the FWC to design the challenge. But the last time so many were hauled out of the Everglades in so short a period was after a bitter cold snap in 2010. Many, already dead or dying, were found out in the opening looking for sun to warm their cold-blooded bodies.

“The only thing that comes close to generating the same number of pythons was a historic freeze,” Mazzotti said. “I think the challenge did a darn good job.”

By comparison, for instance, through the first 11 months of 2012, only 132 pythons were pulled out of all of Everglades National Park, the Big Cypress National Preserve and other surrounding federal lands, prime snake areas that were off-limits to hunters. The peak, before the freeze, was 367 in 2009.

Scientists credit that freeze for taking a significant bite out of the Burmese python population but even after a decade of tracking the snakes, they can still only roughly estimate the numbers living across the vast Everglades, with population estimates ranging from the tens of thousands to perhaps 100,000 at most.

Before the hunt, FWC managers had stressed that the challenge was more about educating the public than eradicating pythons. Mazzotti predicted the hunt would produce about 70 snakes, with 100 representing an “outstanding” and unexpected haul.

He made those calculations using past biological surveys and historic catch rates. The hunt was confined to state water conservation lands, representing about 60 percent of python habitat, with only 10 percent of that land easily accessible to hunters. In those areas, perhaps 10 percent of the snakes might be in spots where hunters would manage to see them. Perhaps 10 percent of those might actually be caught, a good rate even for experts.

Crunch all those numbers, Mazzotti said, and it produces about 60 snake captures, even using the maximum population estimate of 100,000.

“Snakes are notorious for having low detection percentages,” Mazzotti said. “They’re cryptic. They’ve active at night. They hide underneath things. They have a lot of habits that make them very hard to detect.”

Joe Wasilewski, a consulting biologist and veteran reptile wrangler based in South Miami-Dade who regularly works with Mazzotti on python captures, said he was pleasantly surprised by the result. The hunt was also hurt by an unusually warm January. There were no extended cold snaps to force the big constrictors out to sun themselves on rocks and levees.

“Actually, 50 snakes is a lot. I didn’t think they’d even get that many,” he said. “The main goal of this python challenge was to raise awareness and damn, it’s sure done that.”

Some hunters have expressed disappointment with the number of skins and some media critics questioned whether the python threat has been over-hyped.

But others like Amy O’Bryant, a Tampa restaurant manager, called the hunt a learning experience. After a six-hour hunt aboard an airboat with a veteran Central Florida guide, she said they didn’t see a single snake — or much wildlife at all other than birds, which she said was worrisome. O’Bryant, a veteran alligator hunter, said the Burmese python was a particularly difficult quarry.

“From what they say and how many are supposed to be out there, I was definitely expecting to see one and for sure to get one,” she said. “I’m sure we rode by plenty of snakes but we just didn’t see them.”

The FWC, said spokeswoman Segelson, has not yet decided whether it will hold another python challenge.