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Florida wildlife officials want more funding to target invasive pythons

Conservancy of Southwest Florida

State wildlife officials want more money to eradicate invasive Burmese pythons and increased penalties for people who illegally import and release venomous reptiles.

The proposals were part of $150.2 million in legislative funding requests backed Wednesday by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservative Commission. Also, agency staff members were directed to consider giving a boost to people called out to handle nuisance alligators.

Commissioner Gary Lester suggested increasing funding for stipends in the nuisance-alligator program, saying trappers keep the agency from having “to do all this stuff.”

“It’s not a simple, run out and kill a gator,” Lester said during the commission meeting at Bluegreen’s Bayside Resort and Spa. in Panama City Beach.

“They’re out there in the middle of the night. They’re in dirty, nasty places a lot of times. All hours,” Lester continued. “They go back multiple times. There is no guarantee that they’re just going to run out and get a gator. They get hurt. There’s just so many reasons that we’re fortunate that we don’t have to have our own department to do all of this.”

Lester made the suggestion after Robb Upthegrove, a Plant City resident from an alligator-hunting family, expressed disappointment that legislative-funding requests didn’t provide assistance to alligator hunters.

“We’re taking the liability,” Upthegrove said, noting that hunters usually get $30 per alligator from the state. Trappers can also make money selling alligator products, including hides and meat.

The agency’s funding requests approved Wednesday came in preparation for the 2023 legislative session, which will start in March.

They included $1.35 million to pay python hunters and better assess the effectiveness of python removal efforts.

This March 2022 photo provided by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida shows biologists Ian Easterling, left, and Ian Bartoszek with a 14-foot female Burmese python captured in mangrove habitat of southwestern Florida while tracking a male scout snake.
Conservancy of Southwest Florida via AP
This March 2022 photo provided by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida shows biologists Ian Easterling, left, and Ian Bartoszek with a 14-foot female Burmese python captured in mangrove habitat of southwestern Florida while tracking a male scout snake.

This year’s Florida Python Challenge, an annual effort to reduce the number of pythons that threaten native wildlife in the Everglades, featured cash prizes for people who killed the most pythons. The winner killed 28.

Also, prizes were awarded for the longest pythons — with the longest measuring 11 feet, 24 inches.

The invasive snakes have become prevalent in South Florida, largely as a result of being pets that escaped or were released. Estimates indicate tens of thousands of pythons could live in and around the Everglades.

In addition to seeking more funding from the Legislature for eradication efforts, the commission is seeking to increase penalties for the illegal purchase, sale, importation and intentional release of venomous snakes.

Currently, first-time offenders can face a first-degree misdemeanor, which carries penalties up to one year in prison and $1,000 fines.

Second violations within a 10-year span carry an additional $750 fine and the permanent revocation of wildlife licenses or permits.

The commission is seeking to bump up the penalties, making initial charges a third-degree felony, which carries up to five years in prison and $5,000 fines.

Among other funding requests for the 2023 session, the agency is seeking $16.9 million to cover 41 additional full-time law enforcement patrol officers and support staff. Also, its requests include such things as $7.7 million to fight invasive plants; $6 million to continue Apalachicola Bay oyster-restoration efforts; and $600,000 for artificial reef construction and monitoring.

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Jim Turner