Python removal program grows in southwest Florida

McKayla Spencer, the Interagency Python Management Coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) holds up a Burmese python during a news conference, Thursday, June 3, 2021, in the Florida Everglades. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the state's annual python hunting contest on Thursday. It will run from July 9 to 18 and include prizes for both pros and novices. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
McKayla Spencer, the Interagency Python Management Coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) holds up a Burmese python during a news conference, Thursday, June 3, 2021, in the Florida Everglades. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the state's annual python hunting contest on Thursday. It will run from July 9 to 18 and include prizes for both pros and novices. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

NAPLES, Fla. – Invasive Burmese pythons have decimated native mammal populations in the Greater Everglades ecosystem for years, but a new partnership aims to expand the battle against the elusive predators.

With the help of funds from Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida’s Conserve Wildlife license plate grants, biologists at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida have added 10 “scout” snakes into its Burmese python research and removal program.

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Ian Bartoszek, a wildlife biologist with the Conservancy, said he started the collaborative research project and developed the program over the past eight years and has been able to grow it the last two seasons thanks to help from the foundation and the Naples Zoo.

Conservation Associate Mady Eori with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida holds a 15-foot, 125-pound female Burmese python in the Picayune Strand State Forest.

The Conservancy collaborates with Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Collier-Seminole State Park and Big Cypress National Preserve for its regional program.

Recent efforts for the scout program have been within the boundaries of the Picayune Strand State Forest, a 74,000-acre Everglades restoration project in Collier County.

“It’s encouraging these past few seasons to expand into Picayune and to see where the snakes are turning up and in what frequency,” he said. “The pythons we found over the last few seasons in Picayune were massive. That’s an indication there isn’t much pressure on these invasive snakes.”

Scout snakes, also called sentinel snakes, are male pythons with surgically implanted radio transmitters.

Bartoszek and his crew at the Conservancy track these snakes to find female pythons that are reproductively active.

A female Burmese pythons can lay anywhere from 12 to 95 eggs depending on its size and generally reproduce every other year, he said. An average clutch is usually around 43 eggs.

The funding from the Foundation brought the Conservancy’s scout snake count up to 35.

“We were thrilled to fund such an innovative approach to combating invasives,” Andrew Walker, foundation president and CEO said in a news release. “The Conservancy is using science and speed to remove one of the biggest threats to wild Florida. We look forward to partnering with them again to advance this work.”

To date, the Conservancy has removed 20,000 pounds of invasive pythons from about 100 square miles in Southwest Florida. That’s equal to about 115 people who weigh around 175 pounds each.

The scout snakes can lead biologists to what are called mating aggregations, or groups of reproductively active pythons. Bartoszek said the largest he has seen in the field was eight snakes (seven males and a single female).

Tracking down the scouts isn’t easy work.

Bartoszek recalled tracking one scout, named Loki, required loading up kayaks, paddling across a deep canal and hacking through inhospitable terrain.

The group’s third visit to Loki finally paid out, he said.

Amid thick cover Bartoszek happened to look down and see a massive, 150-pound-plus, snake stretched out under cover on the ground before him.

Mady Eori and Ian Easterling were with Bartoszek then, and as he was holding onto the 16-foot female python, Eori popped up with a snake in each hand while Easterling held two more by the tail.

Conservancy Science Project Manager Ian Bartoszek with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida holds a 16-foot female Burmese python while one of the group’s “scout” snakes lays at his feet in the Picayune Strand State Forest.

“That’s a good day for us,” Bartoszek said. “250 pounds of python coming out feels like a victory.”

The Conservancy biologists will often select other males in these mating aggregations to become newly tagged scout snakes.

“Not all of the new scouts are successful,” he said. “But when you find a proven male that will often lead you to active females, the new guys should pay out next season. Stay tuned,” he said.

A 2016 study published in the journal, Biological Invasions, says that while it can be costly, using scout snakes leads biologists to “more large, reproductive females and is effective at a time of year that road cruising is not.”

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a hotline residents can call if they spot an invasive Burmese python. Report sightings at 888-IVE-GOT1 (888-483-4681).

“Make sure you’re certain it’s a python,” Bartoszek said. “Get a photo, call the hotline, stay with animal and alert the responder to that location and we’ll bag it. We can’t do this ourselves; we need an army of observers and responders out there.”

The Foundation’s Conserve Wildlife license plates can be purchased online at wildlifeflorida.org/cwt.

The Indian River County tax collector will fulfill the online orders, though residents from anywhere in the state can buy one. Plates cost $58 plus any annual registration fees.

Plates also can also be purchased at local tax collectors’ offices.