This year, the Super Bowl is trading pigskin for snakeskin at the 2020 Python Bowl.
This morning kicks off Florida's third python challenge, in which pros and rookies throw common sense to the wind and ride into the Everglades seeking enormous invasive pythons. Today's kickoff event will offer training for new hunters, public python-wrangling demonstrations, and the occasional football tossed for good measure.
This year's challenge is being presented by the Miami Super Bowl Host Committee (through its environmental initiative Oceans to Everglades), along with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). Why? Because everyone knows that catching snakes three times your size is way more fun than watching grown men tackle each other into early retirement.
And also to save the environment — duh.
Today through January 19, folks can register to join the challenge to capture the most pythons, the longest python, or the heaviest one. Each category offers a prize for both amateur snake hunters and professional hunters employed by FWC and SFWMD.
Prizes range from $750 to $2,000, and the grand prize is one of two all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) donated by Bass Pro Shops — 'cause it doesn't get more Florida than huntin' snakes, ridin' ATVs, and waitin' for the Super Bowl.
The winners will be announced at a ceremony during the Super Bowl Live festival in Bayfront Park January 25, according to Jacquie Weisblum, director of Oceans to Everglades. The public can expect to see captured pythons and lionfish in the "environmental village" at the fest while the winners hop onto their new ATVs.
Weisblum tells New Times the initiative is a chance to use the spotlight from America's most televised sporting event to call attention to important environmental issues.
"We wanted to highlight issues that don't get a lot of attention, like invasive species. This is a very interesting issue, and more people need to understand it," Weisblum says.
Pythons are native to Southeast Asia but made their way to Florida in the '80s as exotic pets. There are a few theories as to how they proliferated. Some say that when the cute baby pythons grew too large, pet owners released them into the wild. Others say the pets escaped during Hurricane Andrew. Either way, Florida is left with an epidemic of nonnative snakes in the Everglades.
"They don't have natural predators, and they prey on native species of birds, mammals, and other reptiles," says Carli Segelson, a spokesperson for FWC.
The python challenge used to be held every three years; it debuted in 2013, and the second took place in 2016. But last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged to hold a python challenge annually to help rid the state's ecosystem of the invasive snakes.
Celebrity python hunter Dusty "Wildman" Crum, star of the Discovery show Guardians of the Glades, is one of the reigning champions from the last python challenge. His team, snagging 33 snakes in 28 days, won first place in 2016. He tells New Times he's looking to win again.
"I'm hoping to pull ten or 12 snakes out this year. It's gonna be fierce competition," says Crum, who will be at today's kickoff event. "I'm gonna be putting in a lot of hours and sleeping in my truck."
Crum says he's not too interested in the ATV grand prize because he can't ride one in the Everglades while hunting. But for him, it's not about the spoils.
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"It's not about the money or the toys. It's about winning and getting the snakes out of the Glades," he says.
For rookie hunters, Crum suggests arriving prepared with water, snacks, bug spray, and comfortable shoes during the competition. Too many people in previous years have suffered from dehydration or exhaustion due to lack of preparation.
By the way, for anyone looking for a snakeskin football, Crum says, "If people want 'em, I can make 'em."
Applicants can register for the Python Bowl anytime during the ten-day competition as long as they've taken a training course.