Musings on Florida and the politics of pythons

August 20, 2020 7:00 am

This complete set claws from a 40-pound bobcat was found inside 15 foot female python by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Credit: Conservancy of Southwest Florida

A year ago, I tagged along with a couple of professional python hunters searching the Everglades for the big snakes. We spent six hours slowly cruising up and down a levee road, with super-bright lamps atop their car turning the night into day, in hopes of catching sight of one of the slithering invaders.

We didn’t spot a single one.

Afterward, when I expressed disappointment at not seeing a python, these two tough ladies pulled a box out from behind where I’d been sitting. Inside it was a white cloth sack containing an 8-footer they had caught the night before. It was still alive. They just hadn’t turned it in yet.

I got a similar feeling about something important being hidden from view when I read a press release last week from the U.S. Department of the Interior about its grand new plan for dealing with invasive species nationwide.

“Today, the Trump administration released a draft strategic plan for combating an estimated $120 billion problem — invasive species,” the press release said. “This plan provides a coordinated approach to further align programs and policies across the U.S. Department of the Interior and leverage more resources in addressing this important issue.”

What really got my attention was the part of the press release that was headed, “Florida Everglades.”

“In the Florida Everglades, where Burmese pythons consume native wildlife and disrupt the ecosystem, a portion of the more than $20 billion the administration has committed to restore the South Florida ecosystem will be used to combat pythons’ spread,” it said. “Using new technologies such as radio telemetry, Interior for the first time is tracking pythons in many different habitats to better understand their biology and ultimately find ways to more effectively control this invasive species.”

Well, I thought, that sounds promising! Let’s see how they’re going to get rid of all those thousands and thousands of pythons that have been eating everything in their path!

Everybody knows the python invasion is bad news. Heck, Gov. Ron DeSantis even talked about wiping them out during his State of the State speech in January. Two of his guests for the speech were a couple who celebrated Valentine’s Day by going python hunting together.

Pythons are endangered in their native Southeast Asia but they’re thriving here. The first one showed up on the edge of Everglades National Park in 1979 — an 11-footer that someone had run over. Since then, the big snakes have spread all over South Florida and gobbled up everything in their path — wading birds, foxes, raccoons, you name it.

This python ate a deer that weighed more than the python did. Credit: Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

For instance, four years ago, a biologist at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples was fishing around inside a 15-foot-long female python they’d caught when he told colleagues he had discovered something sharp.

“He pulled out a complete set of bobcat claws,” said Ian Bartoszek, environmental project manager for the conservancy, an environmental advocacy group with a wildlife conservation center. “A forty-pound cat and the snake had swallowed it. And then behind that was a possum.”

How radio telemetry works

The line in the press release about “new technologies such a radio telemetry” refers to something that is not, in fact, new at all. Radio telemetry is something Bartoszek and the conservancy have been using to track down pythons for seven years.

It works like this: Conservancy biologists capture a male python, attach a radio transmitter and turn it loose during breeding season to lead them to females that are ready to breed. They follow the signals to their male, catch the female (and any other males that are hanging around trying to make time). Then they turn the radio-tagged male loose to find another female.

They call the tagged males “scout snakes.” One named Elvis has been scouting out hot-to-trot female reptiles since the beginning of the program.

Finding the females is only half the battle, of course. Most of the snakes are far from any roads, or even dry land. There are times, Bartoszek told me, when the capture team has to hack their way halfway to where the signal’s coming from, then come back the next day and trek the rest of the way to find the location. Then, of course, they have to wrestle all the snakes out of their hiding places, never an easy task, especially if they’re in water.

Thanks to Elvis and the other scouts, they have captured about 700 pythons, which sounds like a lot until you consider there are thousands more out there.

“Radio telemetry gives us an inside look at their world,” Bartoszek said. “But it’s just a stopgap measure until something better comes along.”

In other words, it’s not the winning solution the press release made it sound like.

A partnership, but no money

And what about that partnership the press release mentioned? Well, Bartoszek said, a few months ago the conservancy became partners with several federal agencies that are under Interior — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

“The pythons know no boundaries, so why should we?” Bartoszek asked. Hence the agreement to cooperate in their pursuit across the Big Cypress National Preserve as well as various state park properties.

But the federal agencies aren’t kicking in any money. They’re just sharing data, period. In other words, pretty much everything in that press release was, shall we say, a bit exaggerated.

What about the plan itself? Surely that’s real, right?

I have read the five-year plan and it is as real as anything that’s appeared in the Federal Register. It was drawn up in response to a law passed last year by Congress called the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. The Dingell Act requires Interior to develop a five-year, agency-wide plan for dealing with species like pythons that don’t belong here.

I regret to report that while the plan’s 33 pages do include a lot of words, “python” and “Everglades” are not among them. In fact, I had a hard time grasping exactly what it did say, other than “we should all work together to stop this bad thing.”

I contacted the Department of the Interior with a list of questions. Spokeswoman Rachel Levin told me that the reason this plan is a big deal is that “Interior did not have an agency-wide approach to managing invasive species. This plan, for the first time, outlines a unified mission and vision for addressing invasive species across Interior’s bureaus.”

And when I asked why there’s no mention of pythons, she said, “The strategic plan is intended to be broad enough to be applicable to any species and any region.” In other words, it has to be vague enough that it can fit any situation.

In addition to Levin, I contacted an expert named Don Schmitz, a Florida biologist who used to head the National Invasive Species Council. He also helped to edit a book on invasive critters in Florida with an absolutely perfect title: “Strangers in Paradise.”

Schmitz read over the federal plan and told me that it “lacks a few important things.” The first one, he said, was “creating infrastructure that coordinates cooperation, data collection, etc.”

Why do you need infrastructure to catch snakes? Because, he explained, “you must have live bodies with their job descriptions detailing this is what they do. If not, forget any federal employee devoting any serious time to it.”

‘If it ain’t funded, it won’t get done’

The second thing missing is even more important, he said: Money.

“If it ain’t funded,” he told me, “it won’t get done.”

When I asked Levin about this, she gave a classic bureaucratic reply: “A number of strategies in the plan identify the importance of leveraging existing resources to be most effective.” In other words, there’s not any extra money and there’s probably never going be any extra money so get used to it.

The third thing missing, Schmitz said, is any mention of revising federal regulations to screen all the plants and animals being imported into the U.S. — restrictions he predicted both the pet industry and the horticultural industry would find objectionable.

Levin’s response to this one: “The plan emphasizes the importance of leveraging existing statutory authorities.” (Note to Roget’s Thesaurus: You need to add “leveraging” to the synonyms for “making do without something needed.”)

Rather than cutting back on invasive species like pythons, Schmitz predicted this plan would ensure something else would proliferate — meetings.

“If meetings and strategic plans could kill invasive species,” Schmitz told me, “they would all be dead by now.”

So, to sum up the hidden factors behind the public announcement: The press release from the Department of the Interior touted something that isn’t in the plan, featuring new technology that isn’t new, and a partnership that has no money attached. As for the plan itself, it would appear to be about as effective at stopping pythons as tossing water balloons in their direction from downtown Miami.

I fear that what’s going on here is the same thing that happened with Everglades restoration. Advocates for the River of Grass spent 20 years trying to get Congress and the Florida Legislature on board with spending billions fixing everything that’s wrong with the big marsh, Finally, in 2000, they got a plan approved.

Two decades later, everybody’s in favor of it but now politicians use the phrase “I support Everglades restoration” as a shorthand for “I am a good guy because I am in favor of spending money on this one major environmental project despite voting repeatedly in favor of paving the rest of the state.”

“Python eradication” is the new “Everglades restoration.” Let’s say you’re a governor who okayed building a giant toll road through what’s left of Florida panther habitat, or a president who’s spent three years rolling back every anti-pollution regulation in sight. Why, the pythons can help! Just say you’re against them. It’s an easy way to spruce up your green credentials. Vowing to wipe them out sounds good. Nobody’s likely to oppose that.

The reality, of course, is that these giant snakes are notoriously hard to catch. In fact, they seem to be almost as slippery as some politicians I could name.

Correction: This column has been changed to reflect that the USGS falls under the Interior Department.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.