THE EVERGLADES, Florida (Reuters) - The population of Burmese pythons in Florida’s Everglades may have grown to as many as 150,000 as the non-native snakes make a home and breed in the fragile wetlands, officials said on Thursday.
Wildlife biologists say the troublesome invaders — dumped in the Everglades by pet owners who no longer want them — have become a pest and pose a significant threat to endangered species like the wood stork and Key Largo woodrat.
“They eat things that we care about,” said Skip Snow, an Everglades National Park biologist, as he showed a captured, 15-foot (4.6-meter) Burmese python to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who was on his first fact-finding mission to the Everglades since the Obama administration took office.
With Snow maintaining a strong grip on its head, the massive snake hissed angrily at Salazar and the other federal officials who gathered around it at a recreation area off Alligator Alley in the vast saw grass prairie. It took two other snake wranglers to control the python’s body.
“A snake this size could eat a small deer or a bobcat without too much trouble,” Snow told Salazar before the secretary boarded an airboat for a tour of the Everglades.
Everglades biologists have been grappling with the growing python problem for a decade. The snakes are one of the largest species in the world and natives of Southeast Asia, but they found a home to their liking in the Everglades when pet owners started using the wetland as a convenient dumping ground.
“They’re fine when they’re small but they can live 25 to 30 years. When they get bigger you have to feed them small animals like rabbits, and cleaning up after them, it’s like cleaning up after a horse,” Snow said. “People don’t want big snakes.”
Pythons captured in the Everglades are often killed. Wildlife officials are trying trapping and other eradication methods, and are considering offering bounties to hunters. Scientists are experimenting with ways to lure the snakes into traps, including the use of pheromones — chemicals that serve as sexual attractants — as bait.
“They are estimating there are 150,000 of these snakes. They proliferate so quickly,” said Florida Senator Bill Nelson, who accompanied Salazar on the airboat tour of the Everglades. “They’ve already found grown deer, they’ve found full sized bobcats inside them. It’s just a matter of time before one gets the highly endangered Florida panther.”
But biologists played down the risk to the panther, the most endangered species in the Everglades. There are believed to be only about 100 left, but they range over a territory of some 2 million acres.
“It would take some awfully unique circumstances for a python and a panther to meet up,” said Darrell Land, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist. “And the cats are very wary and they have very quick reaction times.”
Pythons are not the only invader troubling the Everglades.
New fish and rodent species have also become pests, and two thriving colonies of the Nile monitor lizard, an Africa native that can grow to 7 feet in length, have established themselves on opposite sides of the state.
Nelson, a Democrat, said the Obama administration had committed $200 million, including $100 million of stimulus money, so far this year to Everglades restoration, a 35-year project valued at $8 billion when it was started nearly a decade ago.
The project is designed to restore natural water flow and native wildlife populations to the shallow, slow-moving river that dominates the interior of southern Florida.
Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Mohammad Zargham