Florida Faces Burmese Python Epidemic, Still Makes Snake Hunters Jump Through Regulatory Hoops


A specter is haunting Florida—the specter of giant Burmese pythons. According to a new study published by the U.S. Geological Survey, Burmese pythons are devouring furry mammals in the Everglades. Raccoon and possum sightings are down 99 percent, bobcats are down 88 percent, and foxes and rabbits haven't been seen at all in years. As you can probably tell from the name, Burmese pythons aren't native to Florida. So there are few local predators to stop their appetite for destruction. These pythons have been known to eat birds, deer, even gators.

Since 2005 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent $6 million trying to contain the pythons. Among other expenses, this money includes, "design[ing] pythons traps," salaries for bureaucrats, using "snake sniffing" dogs, and the "potential use of unmanned aerial vehicles with thermal infrared cameras to detect large constrictor snakes in the field." Can murder drone strikes be too far behind?

Heeding Rahm Emanuel, the Obama administration is making sure it doesn't waste this crisis. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar used the Lacey Act to label these snakes as "injurious." First passed in 1900, the Lacey Act bans the trade and transportation of certain plants and animals. It's the same act that led to a raid on Gibson Guitars for allegedly using illegal wood and sentenced four Americans to prison for packing lobster tails in plastic bags, not cardboard boxes. Effective March 23, importing, transporting, or selling Burmese pythons and 3 other constrictor snakes across state lines will become a crime. And with stringent consequences: Breaking the Lacey Act can lead to upwards of $20,000 in fines and/or five years imprisonment. 

One reptile business owner was furious with the new ruling:

They have a problem in southern Florida with Burmese pythons and they're treating it as a national threat, which is silly…These animals have no chance of surviving in New Hampshire. If you let them go right now in the winter, they would only last an hour. 

If someone travels to Massachusetts with their pet snake, that would be a federal crime…It is affecting thousands of people and we're losing our rights.

Granted, I'm not sure how many people travel with their pet Burmese pythons. But as long as their pet pythons don't harm anyone else, their rights should not be infringed. In addition, banning pythons would create a black market. Pythons are very lucrative, worth $10,000-$50,000 per snake. Not to mention a loss of $10-20 million in legal snake sales.

Furthermore, while the ban might seem understandable, it does very little to stop the Burmese pythons already in Florida. Biologists believe that there are anywhere from 30,000-100,000 pythons on the prowl in the Gunshine State. Plus, female pythons can lay 54 eggs on average, with some even laying up to 100. 

However, there are other options to stop the snakes in the glades. Writing at National Review Online, Jonah Goldberg lays out his plan for a "great snake genocide":

We nearly wiped out the buffalo in this country because a bunch of guys made money off of buffalo hides. Thousands of years before that, mankind eradicated the woolly mammoth with spears. Spears! Give me five thousand Ted Nugent fans and all the weapons they can carry and the waters of the everglades will run red with Burmese snake blood.

You see, I don't think we need a vast new government bureaucracy to kill snakes. Heck I think if we created a vast new bureaucracy to kill snakes we would very quickly end up subsidizing people to raise snakes to kill them. But, are you telling me that during a time when unemployment is outrageously high, the government can't put a bounty on snakes and get results? I don't know what the right number is but for the sake of argument if we had a hunting season in which you could bring in unlimited number of Burmese pythons for $50 per pound, my hunch is Burmese pythons would be erecting memorials to the great snake genocide of 2012.

Hunts have been done before, but they barely massacred any pythons. Since 2002, only 1,825 pythons have been removed from the Everglades. And there are at least 30,000 pythons in Florida. Isn't indiscriminate killing something the state's supposed to be good at?

Like so many other shortages, the lack of python hunters was caused by the state of Florida. For the 2010 hunt, there were less than 400 licensed hunters. "Python permits" are currently limited to Florida residents; as for capturing pythons, "firearms and traps may not be used." For everyone who isn't Bear Grylls, that's kind of hard.

Elsewhere in Reason: Ronald Bailey discusses invasive species.

In other python news, it looks like Monty Python is re-uniting to make a new sci-fi film. Robin Williams will play a talking dog. And there was much rejoicing.