Python infestation on rise in Everglades National Park

A Burmese python infestation in and around Everglades National Park continues to worsen.

In the past month or so, farmers plowing vegetable fields in the leased 1,500-acre, state-owned tract known as the Frog Pond killed 51 of the exotic reptiles with their heavy equipment. At roughly the same time last year, the farmers killed 44, according to park biologist Skip Snow.

The Frog Pond area is outside the park boundary, north of SR 9336. Snow said cotton rats typically show up there in the late summer to early fall, with the snakes right behind. This is the third year that numbers of pythons have been documented in the area.

"It just shows you the propensity for it," Snow said. "It's not just a few snakes_it's thousands of snakes that occupy Everglades habitats."

The snakes, native to the Far East, are imported here as pets. Capable of growing 20 feet long, they are often discarded by their owners when they get too big and scary. The largest recovered in the park so far measured 16 feet.

Owing to their large size and scarcity of natural enemies, pythons prey on everything from rodents to birds to house pets. They have even tangled with native alligators _ with mixed results. The released animals have found one another and are now reproducing in the wild.

A few years ago, most were found along the park's main entrance road. But their range has expanded widely. In April, a python that was tracked to Key Largo had consumed two endangered wood rats.

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a law making ownership of exotic snakes more difficult and costly. Lawmakers in Congress have proposed a ban on imports.

But Snow faces the more immediate and difficult task of trying to eradicate the pests from the park. He expects to receive federal and state funds for a pilot study to determine the best methods of trapping the snakes without harming people or native wildlife.

"We have projects in place that will help us understand the animal and how pythons react to traps, such as flap-down or squeeze-chute," Snow said.

"The best way to do that is to build some traps and test them in the field and see what works."