Columns

We're Saving the Everglades for ... the Pythons?

By: Nancy Smith | Posted: May 27, 2014 3:55 AM
Python in the Everglades

Burmese python

Pay more attention to Everglades National Park.

One of the world's most unique remaining wetlands is in the throes of its own "silent spring" -- a quiet death we apparently can't hear above the din of the political wrangle over Lake Okeechobee water.

While earnest politicians have just pledged hundreds of millions on the mechanics of Everglades restoration and water flow  -- with a demand for even more money than that from Washington -- the birds and mammals and reptiles that live in the park are disappearing at an alarming rate.

I Beg to Differ

Many of the creatures dying off are threatened and endangered species.

And guess what? They're not all dying from lack of water, or too much water, though certainly the inconsistency hasn't helped. They're dying predominantly from a single exotic predator -- a snake, of all things -- the Burmese python.

Burmese pythons, an estimated 100,000 of them in the park alone, are devouring every creature that moves, including native Florida alligators. This is no exaggeration. Racoons, opossums, bobcats, deer, great blue herons, wood storks — all have disappeared -- really and truly disappeared, leaving behind an eerie and desolate ecosystem.

The Miami Herald has produced weekly installments in a must-read series on the state of affairs in the national park, all leading up to the release of a full-length documentary, "The Python Invasion." The film is due to be shown on South Florida station WPBT-TV  toward the end of this year.

For a 2012 study, researchers who counted Everglades National Park mammals found that 99 percent of raccoons have disappeared since 2000, when pythons became fully established. Marsh rabbits and foxes completely vanished.

Over a decade ending in 2009, federal and state agencies spent $100 million on the recovery of wood storks, a staple of the python’s diet.

You probably remember that last year Florida organized a month-long hunt, called the Python Challenge. It enlisted volunteers to help remove the pythons from the Everglades. But when it was over, the state fish and wildlife commission and other experts came to this conclusion: Evicting the snakes is impossible.

What happened in the hunt? More than 1,500 thrill-seekers, amateurs and skilled hunters flocked to the event from across the country -- but of the 100,000-python population, they caught a grand total of 68.

The conclusion fish and wildlife people came to was, pythons blend. They're right at your feet but good at staying hidden. They require hunters -- real swampland hunters -- to find and kill them, and it will be an ongoing task , not something for a few set-aside weeks a year.

And because Everglades National Park is ... well ... a national park, you can't just go in there and kill the things. The capture of pythons for monetary gain is forbidden in the park. To reverse that would take a change in the rules at the federal level. And not a single person have I been able to find -- not a congressman, not a state official, not an environmentalist, not even billionaire Paul Tudor Jones -- has launched a plan to make the destruction of Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park priority No. 1.

Burmese python in Everglades National Park

Python in Everglades National Park

What gets me so flustered over this now, after all this time, is the amount of money we spend to do things in the Everglades that do little more than appease politicians preening for votes and shut up enivornmentalists with huge egos, a fleet of litagators and a many splendored agenda.

Doesn't anybody else wonder how much of the money we've spent on restoration is actually helping the Everglades?

Plus, I just came across Audubon Florida's "Invasive Species Update" for May. I found it particularly disturbing. 

The report was based on a study that found "Burmese pythons have navigational map and compass senses that allow them to find their way home at a scale never before documented in snakes. This may spell bad news for the continued spread of pythons across our state."

You think?

Because we can only kill them for study in Everglades National Park -- all we're doing when we capture the things is, we're moving them somewhere else.

But we implanted half a dozen of them with radio transmitters and released them "in suitable habitat 21-36 km from their capture locations," and guess what? Five of the slithering behemoths returned to within 5 kilometers of their capture location, moving a maximum of nearly 2 kilometers per day.

These reptiles have a built-in navigational sense. They refuse to be moved from the national park. They're Arnold Schwarzenegger. They'll be back.

Why would we want to relocate them somewhere else anyway? To condemn to death some other animal habitat? No. Burmese pythons are exotics. They're predatory aliens the likes of which our fragile River of Grass hasn't seen in thousands of years. This is about extinction. The snakes must be destroyed.

But it will take commitment and it will take money. I only wish we could have a do-over on some of our not-so-wise decisions -- get some of that money back from bad land deals and repeated studies and torn-down-then-rebuilt reservoirs, for instance.

We need a champion in Washington, D.C., too. We need to be allowed into Everglades National Park to hunt and kill Burmese pythons. 

Otherwise, all the restoration in the world will be saving not a precious jewel -- just a lifeless swamp.

Even Linda Friar, a spokeswoman for Everglades National Park asks, “What have we learned? What strategy do we have in place for stopping these species from being brought here? Are we educating the public well enough? I don’t know.”

The Python Challenge 2013 was little more than a joke. It awarded $1,500 to the person who brought in the most dead Burmese pythons by Feb. 10, with another $1,000 for the biggest python. Headlines in newspapers all over the country said it was all just a hoax. Almost no pythons were caught, there are no pythons in the Everglades. Google "Python Challenge," you'll see what I mean.

We made ourselves unbelievable, even to a lot of Floridians. What a long way we have to go. 

Oh, yes -- and one last depressing tidbit: Pythons can't even be considered a potential food source. They're loaded with mercury.  Tissue samples taken from pythons had a mean mercury concentration of 5.5 parts per million; in Florida, officials caution against eating fish that have mercury levels above 1.5 ppm.



Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423.


Comments (6)

Gladesman
1:48AM JUN 28TH 2014
Hunters would pay their own expenses to help but not until off road vehicles appropriate to Glades terrain are allowed to travel the Federal and State lands everywhere will they agree to do it.
I don't see that happening so kiss all your pretty animals goodbye along with the BILLIONS being wasted to save Everglades devoid of wildlife.
What did Forrest Gump say - "Stupid Is As Stupid Does."
Mike Manning
2:57PM MAY 28TH 2014
I think I have an idea of how to get rid of them.
C Breeze
9:34AM MAY 27TH 2014
Release a couple of young ones in the reflecting pool on the Mall in the Political place long known as "The Swamp"...bet the pettifoggers will pay attention then..... Oh wait,...two kilometers a day? Never mind, the pythons will ultimately make it there on their own eventually...just as ALL snakes have after EVERY election cycle...
seth sklarey
9:14AM MAY 27TH 2014
The python problem is like the aids epidemic. Politicians ignore the problem because it doesn't affect or benefit them, until it is too late to solve the problem. Invasive plants, pythons, mercury and fertilizer pollution in the Everglades will all combine to kill us eventually, much sooner than global warming which is also being ignored. Oh, and armadillos spreading leprosy are another minor annoyance stupid politicians can also ignore. Until some politicians kid gets leprosy, eaten by a python or worse then these problems will continue to be ignored.
Michael
6:43AM MAY 27TH 2014
Remember,FREEDUMB!!!!The Republicans in the House and Senate blocked attempts to block imports of pythons.They also refuse to accept that government has any role in anything except enriching their cronies and political masters. Get the Kochs into python reduction and then maybe something might happen.
maybe that's what Rick Scott is
10:11AM MAY 27TH 2014
FREEDUMB!!!...........................

We are paying this sucker TWELVE CENTS A YEAR!

And what are we getting for this massive investment of our tax pennies?

the answer is: We are getting the farmers definition of "SERVICED!"

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