There was a time when the worst part about Bo Johnson's fall mornings was traversing a desolate and rather spooky course to his hunting spot in Big Cypress National Preserve. The South Florida hunter/fishing guide now treads every step concerned about sudden encounters with a hostile out-of-towner known as the Burmese python – an aggressive constrictor that grows plenty big enough to pose a serious threat to humans.
“It puts a whole new perspective on walking to your deer stand in waist-deep water at 4 o'clock in the morning in pitch black,” Johnson said. “Before it was just the Boogie Man; now it's (huge) snakes for you to worry about."
Deer hunters aren't the only ones at risk. Pythons are a constant threat to South Florida deer, along with wild hogs, foxes, raccoons, opossums, birds and even alligators. Bold, yet elusive, these snakes are cleverly camouflaged and perfectly adapted to the dense local habitat, where their predatory ways have rattled the natural food web and created a giant headache for state wildlife managers.
The occasional appearance in residential areas has, in recent years, brought more attention to the problem, and prompted the 2013 Python Challenge – a hunt/awareness campaign that invites the public and Florida’s python permit holders to compete to see who can harvest the longest and the most Burmese pythons.
An invasive nuisance species of Asian origin, Burmese pythons entered the South Florida environment largely through illegal releases by pet owners who watched a cute little pet turn into a large animal of increasing demands. The snakes have proliferated at alarming rates with pythons now spread throughout the Everglades and surrounding areas. (The largest captured to date measured over 17 feet in length.)
On Jan. 12, the Python Challenge™ Kickoff will initiate a month-long program of harvesting Burmese pythons from public lands, with an educational element intended to allow the public to see and learn more about these large constrictors. The kickoff is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the University of Florida’s Fort Lauderdale Research & Education Center, which will hold its invasive species open house that day.
“The FWC is encouraging the public to get involved in helping us remove Burmese pythons from public lands in south Florida,” said Kristen Sommers, head of the FWC’s Exotic Species Coordination Section. “By enlisting both the public and Florida’s python permit holders in a month-long competitive harvesting of Burmese pythons, we hope to motivate more people to find and harvest these large, invasive snakes. The Python Challenge gives people a chance to sign up for a competition to see who can catch the longest or the most pythons.
“Part of the goal of the Python Challenge is to educate the public to understand why nonnative species like Burmese pythons should never be released into the wild and encourage people to report sightings of exotic species. We also expect the competitive harvesting of Burmese pythons to result in additional information on the python population in south Florida and enhance our research and management efforts.”
Johnson will participate in the Python Challenge by traversing the South Florida wilds in a 16-foot custom airboat. His weapon of choice – a Benelli 12-guage and shell's packing steel BBs. The airboat's go-anywhere versatility is a popular choice for those hoping to catch the big squeezers working on their tans.
"We're going to be looking at the dryer spots and trying to catch them up sunning," Johnson said. "Being cold blooded, they have to have sun to (remain active)."
Although he kept a pet python throughout much of his youth, Johnson knows that the ones slithering throughout the state's southern swamps carry a very different disposition. Describing the Python Challenge as "a real deal," Johnson said the event is an absolute necessity for anyone who enjoys hunting the region's native species.
"(The python invasion) is about the worst thing that could have happened to those of us who like to hunt," Johnson said. "With virtually no predators, (the pythons) are going to take over. If they continue wreaking havoc on the deer and the hog population, it's going to eliminate the opportunity for us to go hunt deer because I believe that eventually the number of animals (won't be sufficient) for us to hunt."
The Python Challenge™ will conclude with a free Awareness and Awards Event on Feb. 16 at Zoo Miami. Educational talks and exhibits will be available for all ages, with chances to encounter live Burmese pythons, meet the experts who research and capture them, and learn about protecting the precious resources of the Everglades ecosystem, including its native birds, mammals and reptiles.
The winners of the General Competition and Python Permit Holders Competition will be presented with their awards $1,500 for harvesting the most Burmese pythons, plus additional $1,000 prizes for the longest Burmese python harvested in both competitions.
Hopefully, the Python Challenge can achieve its dual objectives of raising awareness of the snake's malfeasance while lowering its numbers. Maybe next year, we'll have a Boogie Man Challenge?
Note: Complete information on the Python Challenge™, including how to train and register for the competitions and more about upcoming south Florida events, is available at PythonChallenge.org.
Florida currently prohibits possession or sale of Burmese pythons for use as pets, and federal law bans the importation and interstate sale of this species.