Those who scoffed in March at the South Florida Water Management District's Python Elimination Program can eat their words now.
The program ended June 1 as an unqualified success -- 154 dead snakes, weighing a total of 4,000 pounds, all taken from Water Management District lands in Miami-Dade County. Many females killed were carrying eggs.
Drop in the bucket, you say? Considering wildlife officials estimate there may be as many as 150,000 Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades, slithering eating machines competing for the ecosystem's wildlife -- maybe you're right. Maybe 154 kills don't solve the problem.
But the Water Management District always said, we have to start somewhere, and four years ago when a python hunt first was proposed, no environmental group was prepared to take it on. In fact, nobody had a suggestion for any kind of eradication program. Only the District stepped up.
The hunt went from a joke in the first year with 68 snakes caught by 1,500 mostly yahoos, to a big improvement -- 106 snakes bagged by 1,000 hunters, to now a genuine winner, an efficient exercise employing a winning formula.
Never doubt the importance of this program: Pythons are devouring virtually everything that moves in the Everglades, including native Florida alligators. This is no exaggeration. Marsh rabbits, raccoons, opossums, bobcats, deer, great blue herons, wood storks all have disappeared -- really and truly disappeared, leaving behind an eerie and desolate ecosystem.
Over a decade ending in 2009, federal and state agencies spent $100 million on the recovery of wood storks alone, a staple of the pythons' diet.
The Everglades isn't an environment you can bomb with a commercial pest killer. There is no product on the market, no other method known to man than to get into the swamp -- man against snake -- find each individual creature and kill it.
And even then, you don't want to overwhelm the environment with a human presence. This time SFWMD certainly didn't. They chose 25 professional python hunters from more than 1,000 who applied.
Hunters are getting better at finding the easily camouflaged snakes. My bet is, with every year, they will get better still.
And the program didn't break the bank. Water management officials say they only paid out about half of the $175,000 set aside for the program. Nobody got rich. It was successful because it was never really about money.
The independent contractors slogging through the 'glades were paid $8.10 per hour up to eight hours a day -- and to a man (or woman), each called referred to it as a kind of therapy.
Depending on the size of the snake each brought out, there was an additional on-the-spot cash payment of $50 for pythons measuring up to 4 feet and an extra $25 for each foot measured above 4 feet. The big prize was for eliminating a python nest with eggs: An additional $100 was given for that.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also held python-hunting contests. The spirit of the occasions has been admirable, but FWC hunters met with far less success. And, for a time, the University of Florida brought in expert snake hunters from the Irula tribe in India.
Certainly, all snake-hunt programs should be welcome, but overall, it's the District's that registered the greatest success.
SFWMD keeps records of every kill and every hunter's efficiency. The longest python was 16 feet, 10 inches, caught by Dusty "Wildman" Crum -- who also appeared on a live Facebook weigh-in for capturing the program's 50th python. Oh, yes, and ask Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera about his snake: Making a strictly guest appearance, on one dark night he helped unearth a 15-foot-4 python.
Finding and killing snakes in the vast, wet Everglades isn't for most people. But we should be grateful for the hunters who want the job and who do it well. It's an important contribution to Florida, and it represents taxpayer money well spent.
You want Everglades restoration? Killing exotic Burmese pythons is the real deal.
SFWMD Executive Director Pete Antonacci is already telling folks he'll recommend the Python Elimination Program be extended or become permanent at Thursday's Governing Board meeting. If only all decisions were so easy. I say, let's go permanent.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith