There’s no question they are coming with ill intent, southern assailants slithering toward the last remnant of the northern Everglades where freshwater veins lead to an unspoiled buffet.
The invasive Burmese python, which infests Everglades National Park, has yet to be seen inside the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge west of Boynton Beach.
Without fortification, it’s just a matter of time before the voracious eaters enter the 141,000-acre refuge as conquering parasites, but defenses are being mounted, including a unique python trap that refuge caretakers hope will help with early detection and mitigation.
“Unfortunately, at this moment, there are not a lot of control methods — or any effective control methods — for the python,” said Rebekah Gibble, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service senior wildlife biologist at the refuge. “We have people working feverishly to develop other methods of control so we don’t get as bad as Everglades National Park.”
The 5-foot-long trap, which was patented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2013, has two spring-loaded trip plates at either end that have to be triggered simultaneously by a long and heavy-bodied animal for the trap to close. If only a single plate is triggered, it will reset once the animal steps off it. The idea is that native animals, such as possum, raccoon, rabbits and armadillos, won’t be able to set off the trap, while pythons will trigger it.
To accommodate a longer python — the Florida record is 17-foot, 1-inch — the trap has one end that can be covered with a bag the snake can coil into.
Developed by USDA wildlife biologist John Humphrey, a West Palm Beach native, and the Wisconsin-based Tomahawk Live Trap Co., the trap is in its second phase of testing at Lox Refuge, which includes placing them at the southern perimeter — the most likely snake infiltration point.
In 2016, a 10-foot-long python was found on a levee near the southeast side of the refuge, and there have been sightings in parking lots adjacent to the refuge, Gibble said.
Water samples taken from the refuge have also tested positive for python DNA, but the water may have flowed into the refuge from other areas.
“I think it’s inevitable that this area will get inundated with pythons so we want to do anything we can to control the invasion,” said Andrew Eastwick, a wildlife biologist at the refuge. “But we want to make sure that what we do doesn’t do more harm than good.”
That’s one reason why Humphrey said it was important to test the traps in a controlled environment such as the refuge over more python-rich areas that are harder to reach and frequently check. At the refuge, employees bait and check the traps daily, while trail cameras monitor wildlife movement and interest.
While information is still being analyzed, Humphrey said of more than 700 animals seen on trail cameras near the traps, only four non-target animals were captured.
“One of the long range additional elements we hope to develop is a universal and long-lasting bait type to further reduce the need to physically be on site,” Humphrey said.
That could include adding python pheromones to the trap as an extra attraction.
“Early detection is key,” Gibble said. “We are hoping the traps will be a way for cost-effective python control.”
Native to Asia, the Burmese python is considered one of the largest snakes in the world. FWC’s website says it was likely introduced into the Everglades by accident or intentional releases by pet owners. While not venomous, “the giant constrictors have thrived, assuming a top position on the food web.”
Pythons were first documented to be established in Everglades National Park in 2000. The population has been estimated to be in the tens of thousands, but University of Florida Wildlife Ecology Professor Frank Mazotti said there is no accurate count.
“I am going to give you the single most accurate estimate you will hear; A lot,” Mazotti said in a December interview.
Previous efforts to contain or reduce the python population in the Everglades have included a wide array of techniques, including implanting female snakes with trackers, hiring snake hunters from the Irula tribe in India, training snake-sniffing dogs and holding python-hunting contests.
In March 2017, the South Florida Water Management District began paying 25 contract hunters minimum wage to catch and kill pythons they find on district lands. As of late January, nearly 900 snakes had been removed by the hunters.
That program, which also pays bonuses based on snake length, could be expanded into the refuge under a new contract proposal between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, and the South Florida Water Management District, which owns it.
“They are creeping north,” Mazotti said about the pythons. “We can reduce the population, and I hope, we can protect vulnerable resources like wading bird colonies, but they are going to be here forever.”