‘We love the python challenge’: Ron DeSantis kicks off Florida’s unique competition to remove an invasive species

By: Haley Brown , Florida Politics

June 4, 2021

Burmese pythons are wreaking havoc on Florida’s native wildlife.

With cameras gathered around him in the Everglades west of Miami, Gov. Ron DeSantis kicked off Florida’s 10-day Python Challenge.

The now-annual challenge — the event previously took place every three years — invites python hunters from across the world to come to the Sunshine State to ferret out invasive Burmese pythons.

The nonnative species is taking over parts of the Florida ecosystem and wreaking havoc on the food chain.

Participants receive prizes for removing the most pythons, the longest python and the heaviest python.

Burmese pythons can grow up to 20 feet in length and reach 200 pounds.

“We love the python challenge,” DeSantis declared while wearing jeans and standing under a tent to avoid oncoming rain at Thursday’s press conference.

“I mean, these things will eat everything,” DeSantis explained. “They’re just running roughshod over all the other species. That’s not what we want.”

FWC officials brought out a captured python for a photo op with the Governor.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) considers Burmese pythons a “high priority” for control because pythons compete with native wildlife for food.

Several mammal declines in Everglades National Park have been linked to Burmese pythons, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The remote southernmost regions of Everglades National Park, where pythons have been established the longest, have seen the most severe declines in native species.

In a 2012 study, populations of raccoons and opossums had dropped 99%, and bobcats 87% since 1997. Marsh rabbits, cottontail rabbits, and foxes effectively disappeared from that area.

The invasive species, if left unchecked, DeSantis said, could get in the way of other Everglades restoration efforts, his stated priority.

“As part of my focus on restoring the Everglades, I’ve charged FWC with dedicating more resources and taking innovative approaches to removing invasive Burmese pythons,” DeSantis said.

Removal efforts outside of the contest have ranged from a python detector dog program to a Python Action team, made up of people paid to remove and turn in pythons to FWC.

Because the snakes are good at hiding they can be hard to find, so a hands on approach can be necessary, which is why python hunting is legal at any time of the year in Florida.

But the Python Challenge is unique because FWC officials invite hunters from anywhere to come to Florida to compete for prizes.

“There’s people from all over the world that want to come do the python challenge,” DeSantis said.

Last year, Mike Kimmel won an ATV for removing eight pythons during the challenge. Tom Rahill won $2,000 for removing the longest python, which measured 12 feet, 7.3 inches. Rahill also won for the heaviest python, which weighed 62 pounds and came with a $2,000 prize.

This year, prizes for the challenge could run as high as $2,500.

Year after year, more pythons are being removed from Florida’s swamplands. FWC had a record year of python removal in 2020, rooting out 35% more pythons than the previous year.

“We’ve done almost 5,500 pythons removed from the Everglades since I’ve became Governor,” DeSantis said.

The state worked with the U.S. Department of the Interior to access federal lands for python removal. South Florida Water Management District board member Ronald “Alligator Ron” Bergeron, speaking at Thursday’s news conference, said he thinks expanding python removal efforts to federal grounds has helped reestablish native wildlife in the Everglades.

“I think what we did, under the Governor’s leadership is working to develop a plan with our federal partners to get more access into remote areas, to work in the Big Cypress, to open up secondary trails in order for python hunters to get into somewhere around 100,000 acres for the Python,” Bergeron said.

The Python Challenge runs from July 9 to July 18. Registration opened Thursday.