Evidently at its wits' end over the Burmese pythons swarming the Everglades, Florida has declared a month-long snake season for armed amateurs. They'll go into the 'Glades to compete for cash prizes by killing as many as they can.
What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty, says Oklahoma biology professor and "reptile industry spokesman" Warren Booth. He told the Sun-Sentinel bullets will be flying in a dangerous environment where sometimes you can’t tell one snake from another.
"You've got venomous species, like the eastern diamondback rattlesnake and the cottonmouth," he said. "I think we're going to see native wildlife being killed and a potential human safety issue with people being bitten."
Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is supervising the hunt, said the commission will have extra law enforcement officers on the ground for the event and will provide training on identifying venomous snakes and avoiding harm to native wildlife.
The plan reportedly originated in the office of Gov. Rick Scott in its search for a "market forces" solution to the python problem, which began with overgrown and unmanageable pet snakes being released to the wild.
So far, 400 people from 17 states have signed up for the great python shoot, which begins Saturday. Participants need not have hunting licenses, unless they are younger than 18, and the only required preparation is an on-line training course. Entry information is available here.
But the extremity of the measure does suggest the size of the problem that the voracious pythons, some as long as 17 feet, pose to the Everglades: they are outcompeting top-of-the-chain predators and threatening total disruption to the ecosystem.
Another Everglades scientist, Stuart Pimm of Duke University, said the python threat to the Everglades may justify going a little crazy to get rid of them.
Most of the experts agree, the hunt won’t get rid of all the pythons but it may contribute to the store of python knowledge. More from David Fleshler's story in the Sun Sentinel:
The snakes will be examined, providing scientists with information on their diet, age, sex, genetics and other biological characteristics. Having hundreds of people looking for them at once will give a unique, simultaneous snapshot of where they are and where they may not be, with participants asked to note the location, water level, weather conditions and time of day, he said.
It will also show whether hunting has real promise for solving the python problem.
The hunt concludes Feb. 10 and there will be an awards ceremony Feb. 16 at the University of Florida's Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center in Davie. Prizes include $1,000 for the longest snake and $1,500 for the most snakes.