NEW: Python program ends with 154 snakes dead; should it continue?

Saving the fragile Everglades from destructive pythons fell this spring to 25 hunters who earned minimum wage plus bonuses to stalk and kill the invasive serpent.

The experimental program launched March 25 by the South Florida Water Management District ended Thursday with 154 dead snakes weighing a total of 4,000 pounds. While the final tally of costs wasn’t available Friday, water management officials said they expect it to be about half of the $175,000 set aside for the program.

“It’s been a great success,” said district executive director Pete Antonacci, who will recommend to the district’s governing board that the program be extended or become permanent. “You don’t want to lose momentum when something good is happening.”

Video: Dusty “Wildman” Crum stalks, kills 16-foot-10-inch python.

Frustration over the unbridled spread of the Burmese python, which eats everything from mice to alligators and has no natural predators in the Everglades, spurred the creation of the district’s program.

Florida is trying myriad ways to reduce the python population, which is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.

Geneticists work in labs identifying python whereabouts by testing water samples for their DNA. Expert snake hunters from the Irula tribe in India were hired by the University of Florida to search for snakes. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission holds python-hunting contests in which cash prizes are won based on the quantity and the length of snakes.

Last year more than 1,000 people from 29 states registered for the python contest, which netted 106 snakes, including one that was 15 feet long.

Antonacci said the water management district’s program was met with skepticism.

“All the wildlife guys said it was going to be a big bust,” he said. “I think it exceeded our expectations.”

The job of full-time python hunter paid $8.10 an hour, plus incentives starting at $50 for a 4-foot snake and $25 for each additional foot. A snake found guarding a nest with eggs was worth an additional $100

Related: Watch python vs. gator in epic battle for survival.

Since the program’s start, the FWC created a similar plan to pay contract hunters minimum wage. It also launched a drop-off program that awards prizes for pythons caught by residents.

Diane Hirth, a spokeswoman for FWC, said the drop-off program netted five pythons. The contract hunters have logged more than 90 hours, but haven’t caught a snake.

Greg Conterio nabbed four pythons as a hunter for the water management district, including one that was 11 feet long. The longest snake was a monster at 16 feet, 10 inches, caught by Dusty “Wildman” Crum. Even Florida’s lieutenant governor went on a hunt. Carlos Lopez-Cantera helped dig up a 15-foot-4-inch python.

“When you look at the different strategies that have been tried to control pythons, this has been by far the most successful, I think,” Conterio said. “I am looking forward to getting back out there again.”

The district’s recommendation to continue the hunt is expected to be presented at the June 8 governing board meeting.

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