Florida hunters fail to bag Burmese pythons

With Burmese pythons infesting the Everglades, the state wildlife commission turned to a formidable force to kill them: Florida’s licensed hunters.

“Our hunters are on the front lines,” said Rodney Barreto, chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in a February announcement of a six-week python hunt. “And we hope, by tapping into their knowledge of the Everglades, we can make significant progress in this effort.”

The hunt , which began March 8, ended Saturday. The total bagged: zero.

Officials attributed the hunt’s failure primarily to the unusually cold winter, which they said killed about half of the pythons in south Florida. The species, which consumes native wildlife and competes for food with other top predators, remains a serious environmental threat, they said.

“There are still pythons out there,” said Pat Behnke, spokeswoman for the wildlife commission. “It’s still a problem we take very seriously.”

But the hunt’s poor results will play into a debate over a proposed federal ban on the interstate commerce of Burmese pythons.

Reptile dealers and hobbyists say the proposal is an overreaction to a local problem.

“This is an issue limited to a few counties in south Florida, and even there, they’re susceptible to the cold,” said Andrew Wyatt, president of the U.S. Assn. of Reptile Keepers, which represents hobbyists, breeders and dealers.

“I’m not saying it killed off every single Burmese python, but you’re going to be hard-pressed to find any this year,” Wyatt said. “The whole breeding cycle was interrupted. You’re not going to have a crop of new babies this year.”

No one knows how many hunters tried to find the snakes. They were required to report their kills, and Behnke said she doubted any hunters would keep that sort of information to themselves anyway. The best estimate is that a few dozen hunters participated, she said.

“It’s a tough hunt,” said Shawn Meiman, a hunter from Davie, Fla. “I’ve been out four times. I’ve gone to some really remote corners of the Everglades, where they should have been, and there weren’t any.”

Surviving pythons are typically smaller ones capable of wedging themselves into places that would give them shelter from the cold, but the wildlife commission says they still pose a threat.