Everglades Airboat Rides: Saving the Pythons?

One of the world’s most unique remaining wetlands is in the throes of its own “silent spring” — a quiet death we apparently can’t hear above the din of the political wrangle over Lake Okeechobee water. While earnest politicians have just pledged hundreds of millions on the mechanics of Everglades restoration and water flow — with a demand for even more money than that from Washington — the birds and mammals and reptiles that live in the park are disappearing at an alarming rate. Many of the creatures dying off are threatened and endangered species.

Surprisingly they’re not all dying from lack of water, or too much water, though certainly the inconsistency hasn’t helped. They’re dying predominantly from a single exotic predator — a snake, of all things — the Burmese python.

Burmese pythons, an estimated 100,000 of them in the park alone, are devouring every creature that moves, including native Florida alligators. This is no exaggeration. Raccoons, opossums, bobcats, deer, great blue herons, wood storks — all have disappeared — really and truly disappeared, leaving behind an eerie and desolate ecosystem.

The Miami Herald has produced weekly installments in a must-read series on the state of affairs in the national park, all leading up to the release of a full-length documentary, “The Python Invasion.” The film is due to be shown on South Florida station WPBT-TV toward the end of this year.For a 2012 study, researchers who counted Everglades National Park mammals found that 99 percent of raccoons have disappeared since 2000, when pythons became fully established. Marsh rabbits and foxes completely vanished.Over a decade ending in 2009, federal and state agencies spent $100 million on the recovery of wood storks, a staple of the python’s diet.You probably remember that last year Florida organized a month-long hunt, called the Python Challenge. It enlisted volunteers to help remove the pythons from the Everglades. But when it was over, the state fish and wildlife commission and other experts came to this conclusion: Evicting the snakes is impossible.

What happened in the hunt? More than 1,500 thrill-seekers, amateurs and skilled hunters flocked to the event from across the country — but of the 100,000-python population, they caught a grand total of 68.

The conclusion fish and wildlife people came to was, pythons blend. They’re right at your feet but good at staying hidden. They require hunters — real swampland hunters — to find and kill them, and it will be an ongoing task, not something for a few set-aside weeks a year.

And because Everglades National Park is … well … a national park, you can’t just go in there and kill the things. The capture of pythons for monetary gain is forbidden in the park. To reverse that would take a change in the rules at the federal level. And not a single person have I been able to find — not a congressman, not a state official, not an environmentalist, not even billionaire Paul Tudor Jones — has launched a plan to make the destruction of Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park priority No. 1.

These reptiles have a built-in navigational sense. They refuse to be moved from the national park. They’re Arnold Schwarzenegger. They’ll be back.

Why would we want to relocate them somewhere else anyway? To condemn to death some other animal habitat? No. Burmese pythons are exotics. They’re predatory aliens the likes of which our fragile River of Grass hasn’t seen in thousands of years. This is about extinction. The snakes must be destroyed.

But it will take commitment and it will take money. I only wish we could have a do-over on some of our not-so-wise decisions — get some of that money back from bad land deals and repeated studies and torn-down-then-rebuilt reservoirs, for instance.

We need a champion in Washington, D.C., too. We need to be allowed into Everglades National Park to hunt and kill Burmese pythons.

Otherwise, all the restoration in the world will be saving not a precious jewel — just a lifeless swamp.

Even Linda Friar, a spokeswoman for Everglades National Park asks, “What have we learned? What strategy do we have in place for stopping these species from being brought here? Are we educating the public well enough? I don’t know.”

The Python Challenge 2013 was little more than a joke. It awarded $1,500 to the person who brought in the most dead Burmese pythons by Feb. 10, with another $1,000 for the biggest python. Headlines in newspapers all over the country said it was all just a hoax. Almost no pythons were caught; there are no pythons in the Everglades. Google “Python Challenge,” you’ll see what I mean.

We made ourselves unbelievable, even to a lot of Floridians. What a long way we have to go.

Oh, yes — and one last depressing tidbit: Pythons can’t even be considered a potential food source. They’re loaded with mercury. Tissue samples taken from pythons had a mean mercury concentration of 5.5 parts per million; in Florida, officials caution against eating fish that have mercury levels above 1.5 ppm.

Keep the park safe for more Everglades Airboat Rides!