An Invasive Species Hunt: Inside the 'Python Bowl'

A 14-foot, 95-pound, female Burmese python is held tightly by wildlife biologist Ian Bartoszek after he captured it in Naples, Fla.

A 14-foot, 95-pound, female Burmese python is held tightly by wildlife biologist Ian Bartoszek after he captured it in Naples, Fla. Associated Press

 

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The 10-day competition sent 750 snake hunters into the Florida Everglades, with the goal of removing as many Burmese pythons as possible.

It’s best to catch a Burmese python by hand, while it’s still alive, according to Mike Kimmel.

“It’s the most secure way to go about it,” he said. “A lot of snakes are lost by people trying to shoot them. It’s just not as easy as it sounds. Even if you hit them directly in the brain, their nerves are so hardwired in that I’ve seen them swim right off after.”

Kimmel, it seems, can be trusted on this matter. He’s the owner of Martin County Trapping and Wildlife Rescue, based in southern Florida, where gnarly critters are a way of life. He’s a professional snake hunter, who contracts with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to remove Burmese pythons from the Everglades. And, as of last week, he’s the state's "Python Bowl" champion, a title he earned by capturing eight pythons during a 10-day hunting competition in the depths of the Florida swampland.

Mike Kimmel slowly drives along a levee hunting for Burmese pythons on Jan. 14, 2020, in the Florida Everglades near Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The event, orchestrated by the wildlife commission and the South Florida Water Management District, had two goals: to reduce the Burmese python population in the critical wetlands outside Miami, and to raise awareness about the havoc the snake species wreaks on the state’s ecosystem. 

"Removing these invasive snakes is incredibly important for our native wildlife," Carli Segelson, an FWC spokeswoman, told the Naples Daily News. "However, the most important aspect of this event lies in raising awareness of the problems invasive species can cause."

The snake, an invasive species, established a breeding population in Florida in the 1990s, which scientists attribute partly to pet owners releasing their pythons into the wild and partly to the multiple zoos, pet stores and wildlife refuges that were devastated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The snakes have no natural predators in Florida and reproduce quickly, with females laying up to 100 eggs each year. Over time, pythons have decimated populations of native wildlife, including marsh rabbits, opossum, deer and raccoons. No one is sure exactly how many live in Florida, though varying estimates have placed the number anywhere from 30,000 to 300,000.

The state has employed a number of creative methods to help eradicate the pythons. Citizens can kill pythons on private property at any time without a permit as long as they have the landowner’s permission. The state encourages people to do so “whenever possible.”

Wildlife agencies also contract with private hunters to remove pythons from public lands, paying minimum wage, plus commissions, for each snake that’s brought in (bigger snakes fetch more money, with bonuses for egg-bearing females). Last fall, at the direction of Gov. Ron DeSantis, the water management district doubled its number of python removal agents to 50. The Python Bowl, timed to coincide with the Super Bowl, is the latest addition to the program.

Python contractor Anne Gorden-Vega and Robert Edman during the Python Bowl. (FWC Photo by Alicia Wellman)

More than 750 people from 20 states registered to compete in the bowl, which offered separate tracks for rookie and professional snake hunters. There were prizes at stake—all-terrain vehicles and cash—for the longest snake, the heaviest snake and the largest number of snakes captured by one person.

But for Kimmel, it was about a combination of public education and competition.

“I knew it would be a really good chance to spread awareness of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and just awareness of the problem in general,” he said. “I want to get involved for those reasons—but I also wanted to test my skills against the best snake hunters in the world.”

Kimmel spent all 10 days sleeping and hunting in the Everglades, focusing primarily on the levees that stretch throughout the preserve. Pythons hunt there, he said, and it’s easier to spot them on the roads than in the swampland, where their black-and-brown coloring makes it nearly impossible to pick them out. Kimmel caught eight pythons during the course of the competition, all by hand, all kept alive in his truck until right before he handed them over to state officials. It’s easier that way, he said.

“I don’t want to keep a dead snake fresh on ice for days at a time,” he said. “It’s not easy. So I capture them alive, put them in a bag, put the bag in another bag, and keep them alive in my truck until I turn them in, when I euthanize them all.”

(FWC photo by Carollyn Parrish)

In total, Python Bowl competitors removed 80 pythons. Kimmel’s eight was the most captured by any hunter—pro or rookie—earning him an all-terrain vehicle, which he said he’ll use to hunt feral hogs when he’s on the job for his wildlife removal company. 

Not that he’s convinced it was his best effort, necessarily.

“Honestly, I could have done better, but the weather wasn’t great for snake hunting,” he said. “You kind of develop a sense for their behavior, and for knowing the hotspots where they might be, but it’s constantly changing. Every year is different. Every month is different. It’s always evolving and changing.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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