Recently, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), U.S. National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and Conservancy of Southwest Florida announced they have teamed up to radio-track Burmese Pythons in Big Cypress National Preserve, Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge and other areas of Southwest Florida. This new effort marks the first-time pythons are being tracked in so many different habitats to better understand python biology across the region and ultimately find ways to more effectively control this invasive species.
“Our experts are committed to using innovative methods and technologies to track invasive pythons,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt. “This partnership will further aid in our efforts to eliminate this growing threat to South Florida’s ecosystem and biodiversity.”
Invasive Burmese Pythons are established throughout South Florida, but they are extremely secretive and difficult to find, even though they can reach 18 feet in length. Individual agencies and organizations have used radio telemetry since 2006 to locate, remove, and study Burmese Pythons, but those efforts have typically been intermittent and local. The year-round data acquired through these new unified efforts will help land and resource managers improve python management.
“Burmese Pythons have established themselves as an apex predator throughout the Greater Everglades Ecosystem, and they literally are eating their way through native wildlife,” said Rob Moher, President and CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “We have to stop their population growth and protect native animals before it’s too late, but I’m encouraged that our research team and partners have identified a viable way to reduce the number of adult Burmese Pythons in critical areas.”
The Burmese Python is now estimated to have a breeding population in Florida in the tens of thousands. These fast-breeding and long-lived constrictor snakes are highly adaptable to new environments and have already done tremendous ecological damage in the state of Florida where they consume a wide variety of prey, including mammals, amphibians, lizards and threatened and endangered bird species. In one study, scientists collected more than 300 Burmese Pythons in Everglades National Park and found that birds, from the five-inch-long House Wren to the four-foot-long Great Blue Heron, accounted for 25% of the python’s diet in the Everglades.
Department of the Interior (Department) researchers, with the help of many partners, implant pythons with radio transmitters and then track them to understand python movements, breeding behaviors, and many other characteristics. Adult male “scout” pythons are especially useful, as tracking males during the winter breeding season can lead biologists to breeding aggregations consisting of multiple males and a single large female that would otherwise be impossible to find.
This technique may improve removal rates of large breeding females, which are the most important individuals to target for population reduction. During the 2019-2020 breeding season, scout python tracking efforts resulted in the removal of 86 adult pythons that together weighed approximately 5,000 pounds, including 53 reproductive females with more than 2,500 developing eggs.
This effort complements federal and state programs that use volunteer agents and paid contractors to remove pythons. Most pythons removed by agents and contractors are close to roads and levees. Scout snakes help locate pythons in remote areas that can be difficult to access, requiring researchers to trek long distances in the backcountry to remove breeding aggregations. Using a combination of methods widens the area where pythons are being located and removed.
To distinguish valuable scout snakes from those without transmitters, fluorescent orange tags and highly visible scale marks are placed on each animal. If anyone finds a python with any of these marks, they should take a photo, leave the snake where they found it, and report the sighting location to the email address printed on the orange tag. In the Fiscal year 2020, the Department of the Interior is investing more than $142 million in invasive species management activities, including prevention, early detection and rapid response, control, and research. The USGS, FWS and NPS are working together to conserve and protect the nation’s natural heritage for the continuing benefit of the American people. Collectively, the agencies are committed to a collaborative approach to developing and testing novel control tools and technologies to prevent the establishment and further spread of other invasive species including Asian carps and zebra mussels. This collaboration has also provided forecasting and early detection tools for bio-surveillance of numerous invasive species nationwide.
These efforts are representative of those more broadly taken by the Department of the Interior with our nonfederal partners to protect human health, local economies, and ecosystems from the harm caused by invasive species. Great strides have been made by the Trump Administration to reduce and overcome the ongoing threat of the spread of invasive species to our native biodiversity, specifically:
- Under this Administration, Interior took unprecedented steps to advance coordination among bureaus through establishing unified regions to more effectively address interjurisdictional issues such as invasive species.
- After 20 years without a clear and achievable sense of direction, Interior worked on an interdepartmental basis through the National Invasive Species Council, which Interior co-chairs with the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Commerce, to set annual shared priorities for the federal government to make real and measurable progress on common invasive species challenges.
- Through coordination efforts such as its Safeguarding the West initiative, Interior enhanced collaborative efforts with states and our sister federal agencies to prevent, contain, and control quagga and zebra mussels that threaten western hydropower, irrigation systems, municipal water supply, recreation, and aquatic ecosystems.
- Finally, Interior is also accelerating efforts to protect our environment from invasive species by streamlining environmental compliance for invasive species control projects.
In addition, numerous programs and projects are underway to restore, conserve and enhance the vitality of the Everglades. For example:
- Under the Trump Administration, more than $20 billion has been authorized to restore the South Florida ecosystem.
- The Department of the Interior has directly invested more than $258 million in addition to other indirect support.
- $100 million has been invested to fight back against red tide toxic algae.
- The Central Everglades Planning Project underway at an estimated cost of $5 billion.
- The Administration allocated more than $514 million to accelerate the rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike.