Meet Florida’s Python Bounty Hunters

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Python Cowboy Mike Kimmel and Python Huntress Amy Siewe are just two of the legendary characters trying to keep the rising population of Burmese pythons in check in Florida’s Everglades. Both were once snake killers for hire for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) but now work as professional snake hunting guides.

“I was a state contractor for four years,” says Siewe. “I couldn’t make enough money to pay my bills. So I decided to become a full-time python hunting guide in January.” She averages three hunts per week.

Siewe’s biggest catch so far was a 17-foot-3-inch monster that she killed in July 2021. Two years later, Kimmel slew a 16-foot-long female and was surprised to find over 60 eggs inside her. Of the 7,330 pythons killed by SFWMD contractors since March 2017, only 651 (9 percent) have been 10 feet or longer. (In July, 22-year-old amateur python hunter Jake Waleri captured a world record 19-foot Burmese python at Big Cypress National Preserve.)

The cadre of around 100 contracted snake hunters earn between $13 and $18 hourly for up to 10 hours a day, plus an incentive payment of $50 for each python measuring up to 4 feet and another $25 for each foot measured above 4 feet. Hunters also get paid $200 for each verified active python nest they remove.

Both Kimmel and Siewe not only earn cash as python hunt guides but also from selling items—Apple Watch bands, bi-fold wallets—made of python leather. “The thing I like as a guide is that I get to take people out and teach them about the problems that the pythons are causing,” says Siewe. “They get a chance to help save Florida’s ecosystems. It’s a really cool thing that I get to do.” Private guides like Siewe are clearly an important supplement to state-contracted hunting.

At the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the Python Action Team Removing Invasive Constrictors (PATRIC) program pays the same fees to its own contracted snake hunters. Since both programs were established in 2017, over 18,000 pythons have been caught and killed; contracted snake hunters have been responsible for the majority of the catches.

But this has barely made a dent in Florida’s python population.

Besides contracting with professional snake hunters, the FWC launched its now annual Florida Python Challenge in 2013. During that first four-week challenge, the snake hunters competed to capture and kill as many pythons as possible. Then as now, contestants paid a $25 fee and took an online training course on how to safely capture and humanely kill the serpents.

In that first contest, the grand prize was $1,500 for the most number of snakes killed and $1,000 for the longest one. That year, the roughly 1,600 contestants managed to bag just 68 pythons. In the 2022 challenge, by contrast, 19-year-old Matthew Concepcion beat nearly 1,000 competitors and won a $10,000 grand prize by capturing 28 pythons; the contest as a whole killed 231 of the snakes. The prize money is now supplied by private foundations and companies.

The 2023 challenge, which ran August 4–13 this year, had 1,050 participants. This batch of contestants didn’t do quite as well as 2022’s—they nabbed 209 of the reptiles, with champion Paul Hobbs netting 20 of them—but they landed in the same general vicinity.

Anyone may kill a Burmese python at any time on private land and on certain listed FWC-managed lands. There is no need for a license, nor is there a bag limit. But the FWC does not offer any compensation for pythons except to contracted hunters or during the Florida Python Challenge.

Could bounties produce a “cobra effect”? The British colonial government in India once offered sufficiently high bounties for dead cobras that it perversely incentivized enterprising residents to breed cobras at home. Any such tales about illicit python ranching in Florida are unlikely to be true. For one thing, it costs $100–$200 to feed a hatchling python enough to grow it to four or five feet in a year. The python hunters would get only $50 to $75 for such a snake.

Why kill these beautiful reptiles? “Burmese pythons in southern Florida represent one of the most intractable invasive-species management issues across the globe,” according to a January 2023 analysis by U.S. Geological Survey population ecologist Jacquelyn Guzy and her team of researchers. The number of Burmese pythons now living in the Greater Everglades Ecosystem could be anywhere from 150,000 to a million very hungry snakes. (Ironically, the Burmese python is assessed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species—populations in its Asian home ranges had declined during the prior 10 years by 30 percent when it was last evaluated in 2011.)

Burmese pythons were likely established in southern Florida through accidental and intentional releases by pet owners who became overwhelmed with taking care of their 8- to 12-foot-long reptiles. (The animal’s owners are generally advised to “always have a second person present when handling or feeding pythons longer than 8 feet. It doesn’t take long for a full-grown Burmese python to overpower a person.”) While the first Burmese python identified in the Everglades was roadkill way back in 1979, wildlife officials became aware they were breeding in the swamps of South Florida in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

As apex predators, Burmese pythons are ambush hunters; they have ravaged mid-sized mammal populations in the Everglades. A 2012 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study found that populations of raccoons had dropped 99.3 percent, opossums 98.9 percent, and bobcats 87.5 percent since 1997. Marsh rabbits, cottontail rabbits, and foxes had effectively disappeared.

In a 2022 article for the journal Biological Conservation, biologists Alexander Pyron and Arne Mooers pointed out that the snakes’ prey are “among the most widespread and abundant and so secure species in North America.” So why, they ask, should we worry so much about their declines in the relatively small Everglades region? Pyron and Mooers acknowledge that pythons may also be having an impact on rare Everglades denizens that are difficult to observe. The constrictors also eat amphibians, alligators, white-tailed deer, wild pigs, birds, and other snakes.

The news for native species from the Everglades is not all dire. In a 2023 report for the U.S. Geological Survey, biologist Andrea Currylow and her colleagues cite evidence that some “natives bite back.” Specifically, alligators, cottonmouth and indigo snakes, bobcats, and bears have been detected preying on juvenile Burmese pythons. “Although much more work is needed,” they write, “our observations contribute to limited but growing indications of native species’ resilience in southern Florida’s Greater Everglades Ecosystem.”

Guzy’s team notes that the “unique combination of inaccessible habitat with the cryptic and resilient nature of pythons that do very well in the subtropical environment of southern Florida” renders them “extremely difficult to detect.” In other words, it’s hard to find well-camouflaged snakes in a roadless swamp. “The detection capacity for pythons is very low. I’ve seen estimates of 100 to 1,000 other pythons for every one python we see—1,000 being the extreme high end,” Everglades Foundation Chief Science Officer Steve Davis told Newsweek in 2022.

Besides contracting with snake killers and holding the annual python roundup, researchers have tried using dogs to sniff them out, using “scout” snakes carrying radio transmitters to betray their fellows during breeding season, and testing various traps. All these methods are expensive and labor-intensive, and they have resulted in few, if any, captures. Guzy and company conclude that eradicating the snake from the area “is not possible with any existing tools, whether applied singly or in combination.”

So what might work to eradicate Burmese pythons from Florida? Guzy’s team suggests that genetic biocontrol using gene drives could be deployed in the future. Genes normally have a 50–50 chance of being inherited, but using gene drive systems increases the chances of inheriting targeted bioengineered genes to nearly 100 percent. Specifically, the researchers suggest targeting and destroying the female-determining X chromosome during spermatogenesis. As bioengineered male snakes interbreed with wild females, only male pythons would be born, leading ultimately to population collapse. In 2019, a team of biologists at the University of Georgia validated this process for reptiles by installing gene drives into brown anole lizards.

Until then, the Python Cowboy and Python Huntress and their clients will have plenty of snakes to pursue.

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