January 8, 2020

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press
A Burmese python meets its match in north Key Largo when discovered by Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge associates. A section of the Southern Glades off the 18-Mile Stretch will host python hunters from Jan. 10-19.

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press A Burmese python meets its match in north Key Largo when discovered by Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge associates. A section of the Southern Glades off the 18-Mile Stretch will host python hunters from Jan. 10-19.

SOUTH DADE — Stalkers of invasive species in the Python Bowl 2020 can pursue their quarry in a large tract of the Southern Glades, lying just up U.S. 1 from Key Largo.

This year’s Florida Python Challenge, themed to coincide with NFL Super Bowl activities this month, starts at 10 a.m. Friday, Jan. 10, and runs through 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan 19.

“It’s a big footprint this year,” LeRoy Rodgers, lead invasive species specialist for the South Florida Water Management District, said of designated areas opened for the hunt. “State and federal governments are spending billions of dollars to restore the Everglades. But without managing these unwanted invasive predators, it will be hard to restore our native species.”

Access to the Southern Glades section is off the west side of 18-Mile Stretch, south of the Cemex facility. Take the access road toward the Dade Juvenile Residential Facility. A nearby Python Challenge checkpoint, one of six in districts throughout South Florida, will be staffed during the event.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Park Service and the Miami Super Bowl Host Committee have joined with the SFWMD for the Python Bowl.

“We expect at least a thousand people for the challenge, depending on how many rookies are going to register,” Rodgers said.

Contestants must be at least 18 years old, take a python identification-and-capture class available online and not have a wildlife-violation record. For entry information, visit flpythonchallenge.org.

“First and foremost, the primary goal of the Python Challenge is to create a broader awareness of the danger of invasive species,” Rodgers said. “Burmese pythons were first reported in the Everglades in the 1980s. It was in 2005 that we became hyper-aware of the problem down in the Homestead area, with its canals and levees.”

Maintenance contractors on large tracts of state-owned land “suddenly started reporting all these big snakes getting chopped up by the mowers,” he said. “The entire area was just filled with pythons. We knew right then it was going to be a big problem.”

Pythons breed often and have devastated populations of native animals, Rodgers said. The original generation in wild Florida likely were pets that escaped or were released when they became too large.

A number of efforts to find pythons including use of dogs, pheromones and electronic tracking have been employed, Rodgers said.

“Right now the best result still comes from well-trained hunters with a good eye and the chutzpah to get out there and wrangle snakes,” he said. “People who work at it develop pretty unique skills. We want to ramp that up.”

Active military members and veterans have proven to be particularly adept at python hunting, said Randy Smith, an SFWMD coordinator for the Python Bowl.

“The professional hunters have taken out nearly 4,000 pythons,” he said. “Since half of those probably were female, that could have prevented hundreds of thousands of pythons.”

Bass Pro Shops, the primary sponsor, will award two ATVs for top competitors in Professional (about 50 hunters are enrolled in a state bounty program) and Amateur categories. Other prizes will be offered in categories including most captures and longest python during a Jan. 25 Super Bowl-related event.

kwadlow@keysnews.com