By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida wildlife officials are looking for a few good snake slayers as they enlist the public to combat a proliferation of pythons that have invaded the Florida Everglades.
Combating a surge of pets turned predators, state officials have placed a bounty on the Burmese python in an attempt to eradicate the species from the environmentally sensitive marshy region known as the River of Grass.
The latest attempt will enlist the help of professional python hunters and weekend enthusiasts, who will compete beginning January 12 for the cash in what has been dubbed the "2013 Python Challenge."
The goal of the month-long event is to reduce the number of non-native reptiles that are gobbling up indigenous wildlife at an increasing rate. Winners will receive up to $1,500 for the longest snake, while $1,000 will be awarded to the serpent killer who brings in the largest haul.
"Part of the goal of the Python Challenge is to educate the public to understand why non-native species like Burmese pythons should never be released into the wild and encourage people to report sightings of exotic species," said Kristen Sommers, head of exotic species programs for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Burmese pythons became established in 2000 in the state, which has one of the world's worst invasive reptile and amphibian problems. The problem is believed to have been caused by pet owners who released their snakes into the wild after they grew too large and became too difficult to manage at home.
Federal wildlife officials in January banned the importation of certain species of python, but snakes already released into the wild are wrecking havoc as they have no natural predators.
A Burmese python found in August set a record as the largest such snake ever captured in the state at 17-feet, 7-inches and carrying a record load of 87 eggs, according to researchers at the University of Florida.
The federal ban affects four species - the Burmese python, the yellow anaconda and the northern and southern African pythons.
The challenge is being supported by several environmental groups.
"They are wiping out entire populations of wildlife in portions of the Everglades," said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida. "Having a hunting season is a start, but wildlife officials need to be doing a lot more."
Among other efforts are catch and release programs that track pythons via radio collar and GPS to find out where they breed. "It's only a matter of time before they move from the Everglades into areas farther north," Draper said.
The hunt is unlikely to stem the reptile invasion, but may help scientists learn more about python migration, said Kristina Serbesoff-King, a director of the Nature Conservancy in Florida.
"From a science point, it's data gathering, it's more information," she said. "But in terms of addressing the expanding population of Burmese pythons, it's not going to solve that problem."
(Additional reporting by Kevin Gray; Editing by David Adams and Todd Eastham)