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Archive for December, 2012

Burmese python

Burmese python

One month from today, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will implement the 2013 Python Challenge. The challenge was created with the goal of reducing Burmese python numbers in the Everglades National Park. A $1,500 grand prize will be awarded to the hunter who kills the most pythons during the challenge, which will take place from January 12 thru February 10. There will also be a $1,000 prize awarded to the hunter who kills the longest python.

The program is designed to involve the general public with python management. Registration for the competition costs $25, and includes a required online training program. The program will teach hunters how to locate the hard-to-track snakes, and how to humanely kill them. The park will be off-limits to any persons not participating in the challenge during the one month time span.

size-burmesepython-160-2645-cb1273158741

Python size relative to 6ft man

The Burmese python, an invasive species native to Asia, has been thriving in the Everglades for the last 33 years. Population numbers in the park are difficult to predict, but could range anywhere from 5,000 to 170,000. The python is thought to have been initially introduced to the Everglades through the exotic pet trade industry, when Python owners who could not manage the growing snakes released them into the park illegally.

The python, which can grow up to 23 feet long and weigh as much as 200 lbs, is decimating native wildlife species within the park. The snakes thrive on the warm, lush habitat and, because of their size, can prey on animals ranging in size from small rabbits to full-grown deer. They also commonly hunt the wood stork, a species of wading bird that is already classified as endangered.

The challenge is aimed at both reducing python numbers and educating the general public about the invasive species. Linda Friar, spokeswoman for Everglades National Park, says the program is designed to see if the public is interested in becoming actively involved with python management. “This is a pilot to see if it will gain public interest in areas that you can hunt so that they would be able to remove and capture these snakes.”

This innovative program could prove to be a successful management tool, should the public show interest through participation. Because pythons can lay up to 100 eggs at one time, infrequent or low-level hunting cannot effectively reduce population numbers. The challenge, should the program work, will be managing hunting around public access to the park, as hunting is not typically allowed in National Parks. Another challenge will be managing the public’s adherence to proper hunting and humane culling methods. Improper hunting could damage the already-fragile environment, and humane culling is necessary for a positive perception of the program.

Allowing the public to hunt pythons could help wildlife officials manage the species at a successful rate. Besides increasing the public’s awareness of invasive species and the damage they can cause, the program could also educate people about the risks associated with python ownership and trade. If the program fails, however, Florida wildlife managers will have to come up with another python management strategy that can surpass the snake’s population growth rate and successfully reduce python numbers in the Everglades.

Links: 

Florida Tackling Python Problem with Hunting Contest

National Geographic Python Fact Page

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A study recently published on PLOS ONE challenged the common belief that natural predators have the most influence on elk disturbance, in the form of vigilance and lack of feeding time. The authors pointed to human  influence as the leading cause of disturbance in areas with a high volume of land use, vehicle traffic, and proximate roads. The study suggests that human interaction can affect as much as 80% of elk vigilance in such areas, surpassing the affect of natural predators, such as wolves, on elk.

The previous school of thought has been that natural predators are the leading cause of disturbance on elk herds. In instances where wolves and elk coexist in the same area, the ‘trophic cascade’, or trickle-down effect, of wolves on elk occurred in two ways: first, elk populations declined in areas populated with wolves due to predation; and second,  vigilance of the remaining elk increased in association with wolf presence. However, the findings of the study suggest otherwise. In areas where human interference is high, the affect of predation on elk herds is decreased, while elk vigilance increases in response to human-caused factors.

The article concludes that the new prerogative for conservationists should be examining the affect of human interaction on species such as elk that are highly sensitive to human disturbance.

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Living in an area that boasts a healthy deer population, and which is also near the elk herds of Rocky Mountain National Park, I have encountered many situations that demonstrate this affect. On a recent trip to RMNP, I witnessed a group of people approaching a herd of elk who were grazing about 50 meters away from a road. The people had parked their cars on the shoulder and were walking off-trail towards the herd. Approaching wildlife in RMNP is permitted in certain areas to the extent that you do not disturb the wildlife. In this case, however, the herd’s bull elk was clearly on high alert, and was monitoring the approaching humans instead of grazing along with the cows.

In Boulder, too, I often witness deer who have stopped grazing to monitor approaching humans. Shooing deer out of your garden is one thing–approaching deer when they are grazing on Open Space  is another. Whether we are in a national park or on local Open Space, our presence and proximity to wildlife can affect the animals’ behavior.

The study’s findings indicate an increasing dilemma within conservation efforts. Human interaction is a critical component of conservation support: generally, we are far more likely to support national parks and wildlife preserves if we are allowed to use the protected areas to view wildlife. Consider what would happen if humans were no longer permitted to view bison in Yellowstone National Park, or could no longer go bird-watching in Adacia National Park. Public support, both financial and personal, would likely decrease significantly. But what happens when human interaction has a negative affect on the wildlife these parks are created to protect?

It is a catch-22: national parks and wildlife reserves rely on public support, and that support can only be garnered if the public is permitted to access the parks and wildlife. But public access to wildlife is interfering with some species’ behaviors and restricting the parks’ abilities to protect and preserve wildlife.

Links:

Study Finds the Effect of Humans on Elk Behavior Exceeds the Effect of Natural Predators

Original Article at PLOS ONE

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