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Everglades python hunt begins

“If we see one, we’re just gonna’ shoot it,” Pablo said. “I don’t see the point of grabbing one. We’re all a bunch of rookies, a group of guys hanging out. We’re doing it for the fun - but hey, if we’re helping out, that’s cool, too.”

The three are among 837 hunters registered for the 2013 Python Challenge — a monthlong South Florida contest awarding cash prizes.

Many of the hunters at a Saturday kickoff event at the University of Florida Research and Education Center in Davie were raring to go. But what some didn’t realize is that finding a Burmese python sunning on a levee or a tree island in the vast expanse of the Everglades — even a snake 17 feet long — is like locating a toothpick in a stack of hay.

“There’s pythons everywhere in the Everglades, but the chances of seeing them are slim,” said wildlife biologist Joe Wasilewski of Homestead, Fla. “A 13-foot python, you might only see two to three inches of it.”

Wasilewski, 60, is one 88 snake hunters licensed by the state to remove Burmese pythons and other exotic reptiles from Everglades National Park and South Florida Water Management District lands. He said the problem of exotic reptiles is nothing new; he has been removing pets dumped in the park by irresponsible owners since the 1980s.

His personal-record catch is one that measured just over 16 feet. But Wasilewski said the python problem has grown worse in the past decade, and he believes it’s due to a quonset hut full of the snakes being blown into the Everglades by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. They survived and reproduced, he figures.

If you look at a logarithmic scale, you are talking tens of thousands of them,” the biologist said.

Wasilewski is not a competitor in the Python Challenge. He says he may help staff one of the check stations as hunters bring snakes out of the ‘Glades.

Wasilewski said he doesn’t believe the month-long hunt will do much to knock down the python population, but he still thinks it’s a good idea.

“Even if they catch 200 or 300 snakes, it’s insignificant compared to the overall population,” he said. “But any female they take out, that’s minus 30 eggs. Every one you pull out, it’s one less for reproduction. I hope they pull out a lot, but I don’t think they will.”

At Saturday’s kickoff, Ron Bergeron, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioner, said, “I see this as an environmental hunt where the public can participate to save our beautiful Everglades.”

Contestants are restricted to four state wildlife management areas.

Acceptable firearms include pistols, rim-fire rifles and shotguns - no center-fire rifles. Hunters must provide precise information on where they kill a python. Killing a native snake, hunting in a prohibited area, or posting photos or videos online showing inhumane or illegal activities will result in disqualification. The FWC said it will put on extra law enforcement patrols at the hunting grounds.

Jeff Fobb, a volunteer with the Nature Conservancy, drew a large crowd at Saturday’s event as he demonstrated on a 13-foot python how to wrangle one of the serpents.

“The first 80 percent is putting your hands on an animal this size,”

Fobb said, holding the snake by the head and tail. “You don’t wait for the animal to wrap around your torso.”

But, someone in the crowd asked, “what if it does?”

Replied Fobb: “Don’t let it.”

Hunter Marty Zonkos of Port St. Lucie, Fla., said he has no intention of attempting to overpower a large snake.

“I jumped on an alligator once,” Zonkos said, “and it was one of the biggest mistakes of my life.”

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