Everglades swamped with invading pythons

Thu May 28, 2009 5:38pm EDT
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By Jim Loney

THE EVERGLADES, Florida (Reuters) - The population of Burmese pythons in Florida's Everglades may have grown to as many as 150,000 as the non-native snakes make a home and breed in the fragile wetlands, officials said Thursday.

Wildlife biologists say the troublesome invaders -- dumped in the Everglades by pet owners who no longer want them -- have become a pest and pose a significant threat to endangered species like the wood stork and Key Largo woodrat.

"They eat things that we care about," said Skip Snow, an Everglades National Park biologist, as he showed a captured, 15-foot (4.6-meter) Burmese python to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who was on his first fact-finding mission to the Everglades since the Obama administration took office.

With Snow maintaining a strong grip on its head, the massive snake hissed angrily at Salazar and the other federal officials who gathered around it at a recreation area off Alligator Alley in the vast saw grass prairie. It took two other snake wranglers to control the python's body.

"A snake this size could eat a small deer or a bobcat without too much trouble," Snow told Salazar before the secretary boarded an airboat for a tour of the Everglades.

Everglades biologists have been grappling with the growing python problem for a decade. The snakes are one of the largest species in the world and natives of Southeast Asia, but they found a home to their liking in the Everglades when pet owners started using the wetland as a convenient dumping ground.

"They're fine when they're small but they can live 25 to 30 years. When they get bigger you have to feed them small animals like rabbits, and cleaning up after them, it's like cleaning up after a horse," Snow said. "People don't want big snakes."