Confronting the Invasion: Florida’s Hunt for Burmese Pythons

Python Cowboy Mike Kimmel and Python Huntress Amy Siewe are just two of the legendary characters attempting to control the growing population of Burmese pythons in Florida’s Everglades. Formerly employed as snake killers for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), they now work as professional snake hunting guides. “I was a state contractor for four years,” says Siewe. “I couldn’t make enough money to pay my bills. So I decided to become a full-time python hunting guide in January.” She averages three hunts per week. Siewe’s most significant capture to date was a 17-foot-3-inch monster that she killed in July 2021. Two years later, Kimmel killed a 16-foot-long female and was surprised to find over 60 eggs inside her. Of the 7,330 pythons killed by SFWMD contractors since March 2017, only 651 (9 percent) have been 10 feet or longer. The cadre of around 100 contracted snake hunters earn between $13 and $18 hourly for up to 10 hours a day, plus an incentive payment of $50 for each python measuring up to 4 feet and another $25 for each foot measured above 4 feet. Hunters also get paid $200 for each verified active python nest they remove.

Both Kimmel and Siewe not only earn cash as python hunt guides but also from selling items made of python leather. “The thing I like as a guide is that I get to take people out and teach them about the problems that the pythons are causing,” says Siewe. “They get a chance to help save Florida’s ecosystems. It’s a really cool thing that I get to do.” Private guides like Siewe are clearly an important supplement to state-contracted hunting. The Python Action Team Removing Invasive Constrictors (PATRIC) program pays the same fees to its own contracted snake hunters. Since both programs were established in 2017, over 18,000 pythons have been caught and killed, with contracted snake hunters responsible for the majority of the captures. But this has barely made a dent in Florida’s snake population. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) launched its now annual Florida Python Challenge in 2013, where contestants paid a fee and took an online training course on how to safely capture and humanely kill the serpents. The 2023 challenge had 1,050 participants who captured 209 pythons. Anyone may kill a Burmese python at any time on private land and on certain listed FWC-managed lands, with no need for a license or bag limit. But the FWC does not offer any compensation for pythons except to contracted hunters or during the Florida Python Challenge.

“Burmese pythons in southern Florida represent one of the most intractable invasive-species management issues across the globe,” according to a January 2023 analysis by U.S. Geological Survey population ecologist Jacquelyn Guzy and her team of researchers. The number of Burmese pythons now living in the Greater Everglades Ecosystem could be anywhere from 150,000 to a million very hungry snakes. The snakes have had a devastating impact on the area’s mid-sized mammal populations, causing a decline in species such as raccoons, opossums, bobcats, and more. While the news for native species in the Everglades is not all bad, with evidence of some native species preying on juvenile Burmese pythons, eradicating the snake from the area “is not possible with any existing tools, whether applied singly or in combination.” Some researchers suggest that genetic biocontrol using gene drives could be a potential solution in the future.