Ground zero for pythons in Everglades National Park will be off-limits to all but a handful of authorized python trappers during the 2016 Python Challenge.
In early August, state organizers announced that the second Challenge set for January had for the first time expanded to include park territory, where authorized trappers would be required to turn live bagged snakes over to park officials. The news triggered complaints from an environmental group which said allowing hunters onto park territory set a bad precedent and wasted limited resources on an event with questionable results. National parks do not allow hunting.
"The National Park Service has not put its money where its mouth is when it comes to making python removal a priority," said Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility executive director Jeff Ruch.
But in an Sept. 25 letter, park officials clarified strict registration requirements -- including an apprenticeship with staff or training with the park's Python Control teams and a criminal background check -- that will likely limit trappers in the park to about 36 volunteers already tracking snakes.
Saying the earlier announcement was misunderstood, regional director Stan Austin explained that Challenge rules were changed to allow the trappers to compete for prizes, including $5,000 for teams and $3,500 to individual hunters. The 2013 Challenge only awarded prizes for dead snakes.
"To be clear, the park allowed already-enrolled agents to participate in the 2013 Python Challenge," Austin said.
During the first hunt, 1,600 hunters obtained permits and killed 68 pythons. Of those, most were bagged by experienced hunters raising questions about the utility of the hunt in reducing the number of pythons. State officials have said that the Challenge was always chiefly intended to draw attention to the problem, rather than lower numbers.
Registration for the Challenge opened Oct. 1. As of Tuesday, 47 individual hunters had signed up. Nine teams, with up to five hunters each, had registered.