Armed with hooks, tongs and a snake bag, biologists at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge spent Thursday learning how to catch Burmese pythons.
Although none have been seen at Loxahatchee, the refuge's workers are getting prepared as part of a general biological and legal campaign against what may be the most menacing of all the nonnative animals that have found a home in South Florida.
The giant snakes have established a breeding population in Everglades National Park. Now they're extending their range — heading toward the wildlife-rich lands to the north and south of the park.
About half a dozen pythons have turned up in Key Largo, where they threaten the last populations of the endangered Key Largo wood rat.
The snakes are excellent swimmers and could easily make their way deeper into the Keys, where they would consume other endangered mammals, including the Key deer.
Recently in southwestern Florida, a python was found with deer hooves in its stomach, said Art Roybal, senior biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The service will soon decide whether to list the python as an "injurious species," which would result in a ban on imports and interstate trade. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, has introduced a bill to impose the bans immediately.
A bill in the House, co-sponsored by Reps. Alcee Hastings, D- Miramar, and Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, would require the government to evaluate all species proposed for importation, with the burden of proof on the importer to prove the species would not cause harm.
The pet industry is fighting both bills, saying they're too broad to deal with problems caused by particular nonnative species and would hurt dealers, breeders and importers. But Nelson said his bill would be an important step toward protecting an ecological treasure.
"We've spent billions restoring the Everglades ecosystem," Nelson said in a statement issued Thursday by his office. "Yet the place is infested with abandoned pet pythons that have no natural predators and are killing protected species there."
Dumped at the park and elsewhere by pet owners who wanted to get rid of them, the snakes — which can grow to 20 feet and more than 250 pounds — dine on wading birds, small mammals and anything else they can squeeze to death.
Their numbers have risen steadily, with more than 300 removed from the park in 2008, up from about 250 the previous year, said Skip Snow, a biologist in charge of handling the python threat.
Marshall Meyers, chief executive officer of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, said the pet industry wants to help solve the problem but opposes Nelson's bill because of its scope. Although aimed at the Burmese python, it would restrict the trade in all pythons, including the smaller, highly popular ball python, which has not been found abandoned in large numbers.
Breeders and dealers are "extremely worried," he said.
"It could have a significant impact on people in the reptile community," he said. In Florida alone, the trade in pythons generates about $10 million a year, he said.
Although trade restrictions would come too late for the Everglades, with its entrenched python population, they could prevent the problem from recurring elsewhere. Most of the southern third of the United States — from Virginia through central California — contains a climate and habitat sufficiently similar to the python's southern Asian homeland to support populations of them.
"It may be too late to stop the invasion of the Everglades," said Beth Preiss, director of the exotic pets campaign for The Humane Society of the United States. "But it's not too late to stop it in the rest of the country."
David Fleshler can be reached at dfleshler@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4535.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times