Photo By Jana Sabeth
An invasive Burmese python was recently spotted in the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in West Boynton Beach. The U.S. Geological Survey, a science bureau within the U.S. Department of the Interior, says non-native Burmese pythons are among the most concerning invasive species in the Everglades, and they have established a breeding population in South Florida.
Mike Kirkland, an invasive-animal biologist from the water management district, said Burmese python sightings in the refuge are an indication that the population is expanding. He is meeting with officials to develop a strategy to counter the situation. Pythons compete with native wildlife for food, and a severe decline in mammals in the Everglades has been linked to the destructive snake’s eating habits.
Pythons are caught while they sun themselves on levees that run through wetlands in other areas of South Florida. They are also caught when they are spotted by hunters driving along the levees at night. The problem is that levees do not run through most of the Loxahatchee Refuge, so catching a python is like finding a needle in a haystack, according to Kirkland. In 2016, a 10-foot python was found on the southeast side of the refuge.
Capturing pythons proves difficult because the refuge is composed of 144,000 acres of tree islands, cypress swamps and cattail mires. Most of the area is accessible only by helicopter or airboat, making it almost impossible to launch a quick response once a python is spotted. Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida wildlife professor and leader of the Croc Docs research team, estimates that up to 1,000 pythons are undetected for every snake that is found. He said that even though the team responded to a python sighting within hours, it was gone.
The Water Management District is asking the public for ideas about how to find pythons in the wild. Several suggestions have come from Fort Lauderdale-based Environmental Science Associates, the University of Health Sciences & Pharmacy in St. Louis, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Recommendations include using the scent of a female to lure males for easier capture; using infrared imagery; deploying python-sniffing dogs; and using “scout” snakes fitted with radio transmitters to find female pythons, which can produce up to 95 eggs in each clutch.
To control the python population, the Water Management District nearly doubled the pay for contractors who are willing to patrol the refuge for pythons. The python hunters can earn $15 per hour at the Loxahatchee Refuge, as opposed to $10 per hour in other parts of South Florida. Hunters are also paid $50 for every python they capture over 4 feet in length and an extra $25 per foot above 4 feet.
Around 5,250 pythons have been removed by district hunters since the inception of the program in March 2017. In addition, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hunters nabbed 3,385 pythons.
The Loxahatchee Refuge is the last bastion of the northern Everglades, which once covered a huge area of South Florida. It is one of over 500 wildlife refuges throughout the nation.
Photo By Laura Ries
If you visit the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, be on the lookout for these invasive snakes, alongside endangered and threatened species. Species that call the refuge home include the wood stork, snail kite, Florida softshell turtles, coastal plain cooters and American alligators. You also could notice the tracks of otters, bobcats, armadillos and raccoons as you walk the trails.
Bring your camera and get your binoculars ready for a stroll through the Butterfly Garden or a walk along the Marsh Trail or any of the other trails.