Hunters employed full-time in fight against invasive Florida pythons

Greg Conterio pumps the brakes hard on a gravel road, throwing the gear shift on his 2000 Ford Explorer into park and leaving with the keys still hanging in the ignition.

He saw a ripple, a slither, a glint off a shiny scale.

Conterio, a paid political activist between jobs, is Florida’s latest weapon in its war against the invasive Burmese python. He is a full-time snake hunter with a minimum-wage salary and the opportunity for bonuses based on length.

The 56-year-old Homestead resident is one of 25 people chosen for a program created by the South Florida Water Management District to see how effective 40-hour-a-week python hunters can be at catching the elusive predator.

The two-month experiment began March 25. As of Thursday, three pythons, including a 14-footer, had been captured and killed.

But not by Conterio, who on Thursday was somewhere deep in the Everglades west of Florida City and feeling competitive.

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“Burmese pythons are devilishly hard to find,” said Conterio, who has stumbled upon three on previous Everglades jaunts. “They are perfectly camouflaged. They are experts at not being found.”

Burmese pythons are at the top of the food chain in the Everglades, with no natural predators and eating their way north and south.

In September, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced python hatchlings were found in Key Largo, while a 10-foot python was found on a levee at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Palm Beach County.

In December, researchers found that a 15-foot female python had eaten three white-tailed deer in the 90 days before its capture because their hooves were still in its stomach.

“They are ambush predators,” said Nick Aumen, senior science advisor for the southeast region of the U.S. Geological Survey. “They lay in wait for their prey, buried in vegetation. Any pythons that we can remove is good.”

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 for their DNA in water samples. Expert snake hunters from the Irula tribe in India were hired by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Services to search for snakes. The FWC holds python-hunting contests where cash prizes are won based on quantity and length of snake.

>>Read Missing man found dead inside 23-foot python

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.

When the water management district announced its program, more than 1,000 people applied to be part of it.

The job pays $8.10 an hour, plus incentives starting at $50 for a 4-foot-long snake and $25 for each additional foot above that.

A snake found guarding a nest with eggs is worth an additional $100. The district set aside $175,000 for the program.

“A lot of people are just sick that they are here in the first place,” said water management district spokesman Randy Smith about people who applied to be hunters. “There’s not a lot of sympathy for the python.”

For Conterio, it’s not about the money. He actually enjoys mucking around in the spongy Everglades, turning over rocks with a crowbar and looking for the sparkle of smooth python scales in sunny spots along canals.

“I’m taking advantage of my downtime, and this is a really cool thing to do,” Conterio said. “I feel very blessed I got picked.”

Conterio is an Illinois farm boy who grew up catching snakes and majored in zoology at Eastern Illinois University. When a career in his chosen field didn’t appear, he spent 30 years as an information-technology consultant before becoming a paid political activist.

Pre-dawn was when Conterio began his hunt Thursday. He likes morning or dusk, times when the snakes may slither onto roadways for warmth, but not when it’s so hot that they’re hiding.

He carries a handgun, a .22-caliber rifle, a knife and the crowbar.

“My wife thinks I’m out of my mind for doing this,” said Conterio, who has a 14-year-old daughter. “I expect to get bitten. I’ve been bitten before.”

Pythons aren’t venomous. They like to bite, hold and crush, suffocating their prey or pressing so hard on their rib cage that their heart stops.

Before the water management board approved the hunting program, they watched a Palm Beach Post video of a python attacking an alligator in Big Cypress National Preserve in December. The video drew international attention.

“Anyone who has seen the now famous python vs. alligator video can attest that the fight for survival of the Everglades is real,” said South Florida Water Management District Governing Board chairman Dan O’Keefe.

Conterio said the best way to deal with the python problem is a bounty system.

But he’ll do the minimum-wage gig for now. And remain patient.

No snakes were caught Thursday.

“The frustrating thing is they will just curl up under some leaves and grass and you’ll walk right by them,” Conterio said. “Hunting pythons is really, really, really hard.”

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