PORT ST. LUCIE — While a massive python hunt is ongoing in the Everglades, snake experts are meeting in Port St. Lucie Wednesday to make plans to keep the destructive reptiles from invading Treasure Coast habitats.
Those plans include soliciting the public's help by having people report snake sightings.
The five-member Python Patrol, who are licensed snake hunters after receiving formal training last year, will have a 2013 planning meeting that's open to the public Wednesday, but it will not include informational lectures.
"What our jobs will be when a person thinks they have seen an invasive reptile such as a boa, python or monitor lizard is to document it and try to catch it," said team leader Ken Gioeli, an extension agent with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "If we do see the invasive reptile, then it does get logged and we will have the ability through our licenses to go out and actually catch it."
Gioeli cautions people not to catch and destroy any snake they see.
"The goal is not to have people killing snakes, especially not the native ones," he said.
There are 79 species of native snakes in Florida, and only six are venomous, Gioeli said, with only four found on the Treasure Coast: coral snake, water moccasin, dusky pigmy rattlesnake and Eastern diamondback rattlesnake.
"Sometimes people don't understand how to identify the venomous from the non," he said, adding that the big black and slow-moving indigo snake — a threatened species — frequently falls victim to poachers and well-meaning people.
"They are one of our more beautiful snakes in Florida," he said, "and one of the interesting things is the indigo snakes will actually eat the eastern diamondback snake, so they help keep venomous snakes in control."
This, Gioeli said, is why reporting snake and other reptile sightings is more important than capturing or harming them.
"If you don't know if it's a harmful snake or not, walk away and leave it alone. If it is exotic, report it."
The Burmese python, a large, non-venomous constrictor, is a threat to the ecosystem because it eats native wildlife such as birds, deer and even alligators. It is thriving in Florida.
Licensed hunters can remove Burmese pythons, which can reach 17 feet long, from the Everglades and wildlife management areas, including Rotenberger, Big Cypress, Holey Land and Francis S. Taylor. There is also a conditional reptiles season in these areas from March 4 through April 14 when Burmese pythons can be harvested.