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Published: Thursday, May 11, 2017 @ 11:43 AM
EVERGLADES, Fla. — Florida is escalating its war against Burmese pythons, nearly doubling the ranks of paid hunters, adding prizes for layman kills and doling out bonuses worth $10,000 in a program that marked its 50th snake takedown April 25.
Dusty “Wildman” Crum, barefoot and wearing a homemade boar’s tooth necklace, was lauded by the South Florida Water Management District for catching the 50th invasive python in a population control experiment that began March 25.
Crum, an orchid dealer in Venice, Florida, has nabbed three snakes in the district’s program, including a 14.6-foot long, 70-pound female that was displayed during a live webcast from Homestead.
“I’m looking for the 16-footer. She’s out there somewhere waiting for me,” said Crum, who found two of his snakes near the ValueJet Flight 592 Memorial along the L-67 canal. “Sometimes, you get lucky. Sometimes, you go for days and don’t see anything.”
The water management district is paying 25 hunters minimum wage – $8.10 per hour – to hunt and kill pythons. They can earn incentives starting at $50 for a 4-foot-long snake and $25 for each additional foot above that.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a similar program with 22 paid hunters who began their python pursuit April 15. In addition to the paid hunters, FWC launched its Python Pickup Program that encourages people to kill pythons by offering prizes such as T-shirts, $100 gas cards, Yeti tumblers, GoPro cameras and other gear.
To be eligible for prizes, people must send a photo of the dead python to firstname.lastname@example.org with their name, address, T-shirt size and information on where the snake was captured.
People who want to learn more about how to find, catch and kill pythons can sign up for training through FWC. A class is being offered June 17 at Okeeheelee Nature Center in unincorporated Palm Beach County.
“We know many Florida residents and visitors want to help tackle this tough conservation challenge by going after pythons in the wild and removing any they can find,” said FWC Executive Director Nick Wiley. “We want to continue to encourage and support this important citizen conservation effort.”
Burmese pythons are at the top of the food chain in the Everglades, eating their way north and south and facing no natural predators.
In September, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced that python hatchlings had been found in Key Largo, while a 10-foot python was found on a levee at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Palm Beach County.
In December, researchers determined a 15-foot female python had eaten three white-tailed deer in the 90 days before its capture, because their hooves were still in its stomach.
“They are ambush predators,” Crum said. “The bird, the rabbit, the otter, they are going to lose every time.”
The largest snake captured through the water management program was 15 feet, 10 inches long and had 80 eggs in its belly.
“We are removing with that one snake, a generation of snakes in that area,” said Rory Feeney, the water management district’s bureau chief for land resources, during a meeting this month.
The district’s program, which has a budget of $175,000, is scheduled to end June 1.
Crum said he will take his snakes to a tanner in South Florida to make something out of their skin.
But there’s not a lot of money in individual snake sales, said Abram Mendal, vice president of Pan American Leathers, Inc., which has showrooms in Texas and New York.
Mendal said he buys python skins in bulk from Southeast Asia with as many as 500 skins purchased at a time.
Depending on quality, a raw skin can go for between $5 and $10 per meter in length (about three feet). If a small-time python hunter wants a skin tanned, he or she can take it to Pan American Leathers, but they will pay for the service.
“We are happy to do one or two at a time, but they would own the leather,” Mendal said.
Mendal said his company spoke with FWC officials when the Python Challenge first began, emphasizing the importance of collecting snake hides in quantity for the program to be commercially viable.
FWC has held two Python Challenges, where contestants compete for prizes awarded for snake quantity and size. Crum was part of a team that took home the most pythons – 33 – and longest snake – 15 feet – during the 2016 Python Challenge.
“They are on top of it,” Mendal said about FWC. “They know they have a problem and are addressing it, but most people aren’t experienced in hunting pythons and need to be trained or bring in a consultant.”
The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Services and FWC have worked with Irula tribesman from India to hunt pythons.
Crum said he uses his bare hands to catch the snakes.
“I got bit last week, but it healed up in a couple days,” he said. “I got a little tooth stuck in my finger. I thought it was a splinter.”