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Florida Plans Snake-Hunting Contest to Combat Pythons

— The battle to control Burmese pythons in the Everglades has employed an array of tactics to date, including snake-sniffing dogs, GPS-equipped “Judas” snakes and teams of state-licensed reptile wranglers.

Florida wildlife managers this week announced a new approach: a snake-hunting contest offering cash prizes.

The Python Challenge, scheduled to begin next month, will pay $1,500 for the largest number of snakes and $1,000 for the longest one in two categories. One would include 70 or so licensed python hunters and the other would be open to anyone willing to pay a $25 registration fee, take a half-hour online identification course and — it probably goes without saying — sign a liability waiver.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission touts the month-long contest as a way to raise public awareness about the threat the exotic constrictors pose to native wildlife in the Everglades and potentially put a dent in their population. Scientists estimate that thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of the once-popular pets now live in the wild.

Carli Segelson, a spokeswoman for the FWC, said the agency believes the online training and additional tips offered at a kick-off event planned Jan. 12 at the University of Florida’s research center in Fort Lauderdale will teach neophytes how to identify and safely capture large, potentially dangerous snakes. The largest Burmese python captured to date in Florida was a 17.5-footer that weighed 164 pounds. Typical pythons caught in the Everglades run from 6 to 9 feet, larger than most native species.

But Segelson cautioned that python catching is not a pursuit to take lightly.

“We do expect people to maintain appropriate caution when dealing with any wild animal,” she said.

The contest is likely to appeal mostly to seasoned hunters. The online course, for instance, includes tips for humanely dispatching the snakes, which is a contest requirement. Some options include a gunshot to the head or decapitation with a machete, but that second method alone isn’t enough to minimize pain, according to the contest website.

“Regardless of the technique you choose, make sure your technique results in immediate loss of consciousness and destruction of the Burmese python’s brain,” the guide notes. Even after beheading, a python’s nervous system can remain active for up to an hour, producing twitches in the carcass and jaws.

The FWC worked with a number of partners in developing the contest, including University of Florida, the Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Foundation of Florida, the Future of Hunting in Florida and ZooMiami.

Kristina Serbesoff-King, associate director of conservation for the Nature Conservancy, called the hunting contest a “novel approach” that could provide more data and help increase accurate reporting. But she said state and federal wildlife managers still need to launch more comprehensive and organized efforts.

“We know this effort is not going to be solution in and of itself,” she said. “You can’t send the general public out there and think you’re going to take care of the python population.”

In fact, the natural camouflage markings and lay-in-wait hunting habits of pythons make it difficult for highly trained experts to spot them in the wild - with the exception of chilly days when the snakes sun themselves on levees, roads or rocks.

Serbesoff-King said her organization has helped develop training to teach the public to tell the difference between a harmless corn snake and an invasive python. She said the FWC, which manages hunting, was focusing on ensuring the contest proves safe for humans and native species.

The contest, which ends with an awards and education event on Feb. 16 at ZooMiami, also includes rules intended to prevent scammers from simply turning in unwanted pets. The hunting area is confined to four state-owned wildlife management areas in the Everglades - with Everglades National Park strictly off-limits. Contestants must provide GPS logs of search areas and data sheets documenting captures.

To be eligible for the long snake contest, rules require “the snake should be in no more than two pieces (e.g., the head removed from the body. However, any snake submitted in more than two pieces still counts toward the total number of snakes.”

Prize money, Segelson said, will come from FWC partners and entry fees.

Last year, the Obama administration banned the importation of four species of constrictors, including the Burmese python. Florida also bans people from keeping Burmese pythons as pets but the state allowed owners to “grandfather” snakes that were licensed before July 1, 2010. Researchers, dealers and exhibitors also can own them with state licenses.