Exclusive: Guardians of the Glades’ Dusty Crum on Florida’s at-risk ecosystem and a new season on Discovery

Dusty Crum in action in the Everglades. Pic credit: Discovery.
Dusty Crum in action in the Everglades. Pic credit: Discovery.

Discovery’s surprise hit series Guardians of the Glades is back next week. It’s never been more timely.

The butt of jokes across America usually takes aim at the sunny state of Florida. It’s unfair, as the state is one giant miraculous ecosystem that has such stunning beauty and shorelines.

But it’s under siege, in trouble and crawling with invasive species that were either hitchhikers on cargo ships, from weather events like hurricanes that swamp refuges, or simply dumped into the vast Everglades by careless people who underestimated the mammalian (monkeys) or reptile “pet” they purchased.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew introduced Burmese Pythons to the Southern Florida wilderness. In the wake of the destructive storm, the state began a python bounty program in a desperate attempt to regain control over the Glades.

Snake hunter Dusty Crum was the man who Discovery found that effectively takes on some of the biggest, deadliest snakes in the Everglades, and his team is also along for the hunt.

But he is no aggressive hunter by nature, more a “swamp hippie” as described by Brittany Borges, who we interviewed last season.

Florida’s Burmese Python problem is not getting better despite the vigilant culling, now their population is doubling in number. But can Dusty, Brittany, swamp guru Jay, wildlife expert Gary, and survivalist Tom get ahead of the biggest, deadliest snakes in the Everglades?

What happens in Florida’s ‘wet season’ is that the high-water acts as a “highway” and perfect incubation ground for reptiles to breed and flourish, and to date, there are over 500 invasive species that the state is grappling with, including the very showy and large Burmese Python.

What is at stake is an entire natural ecosystem, mammals native to the Everglades and beyond. Not to mention small dogs and humans who can be killed by these rogue and really large snakes.

What to expect this season

The state has doubled the bounty, and Dusty and his team are doubling down their efforts. Dusty is reinventing his tactics to stop the area’s python takeover and save their beloved home and the diminishing wildlife who inhabit it.

These snakes can measure 18-feet in length or more and can attack and eat full-grown deer as they live and hide in the sawgrass swamps and mangroves of the Everglades and beyond.

Other invasive species in Florida

Florida is plagued by more than 500 non-native plant and animal species. Along with Burmese pythons, The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission encourages the public to be vigilant for feral hogs, Cane (or bufo) toads, Lionfish, Cuban tree frogs, Giant African land snails, Iguanas, Green mussels, monkeys, Tegu lizards and more.

Monsters and Critics spoke to Dusty ahead of the new season.

Monsters and Critics: Did you expect your series to resonate with so many people?

Dusty Crum: What surprised me the most at all this is the kids. The kids are so into this and that’s the best reward to me of anything because we need the younger generations and the future generations to care about our ecosystem and carry on our work along with other ecological work.

M&C:  I spoke to Brittany Borges during the season and she called you a swamp hippie and said that nobody cared about Florida the way you did and the natural systems there.

Dusty Crum: Yes, for sure. It’s Florida. We’re all about flip flops and sunshine. It’s laid back. So I try to live life like that and not get too stressed out about one thing or another. I don’t know. It’s just an easy kind of way of living.

M&C: Despite that, Florida is really under siege right now. It’s not just the Burmese pythons. They say there’s a hundred non-native plant and animal species that are flourishing in the state and they’re problematic. Talk about that.

Dusty Crum: Oh, for sure. And we’re going to highlight some of that, and obviously the pythons are the big push because it’s scary and it’s a big snake and this and that.

But it opens a door for us to highlight some of these other issues that we’re having with the other invasive species, like the tegus and the iguanas and different animal species along with plant species and our water quality issues and other things that we have going down here in Florida because we rely on tourism, our whole state does.

And, if all of a sudden it’s overrun with snakes and nobody can go to the beach because of red tide, nobody’s going to be coming to Florida anymore. It’s going to really devastate the whole state.

M&C: I was reading your state was having issues with monkeys and feral hogs and these are mammals. They’re not reptiles. Would it be harder for you to go after and kill mammals than reptiles or hunt them?

Dusty Crum: Well, it’s a balance. I’ve never been a hunter or a killer out of need for a trophy, but growing up, I worked at a dairy farm and the farmer would have his crops of corn just devastated by these [feral] hogs and thousands and thousands of dollars every day of the crops that are getting destroyed.

And the hogs would just eat a little bit off the corn and go the next one. Then there’s just so much wasted, laying on the ground. And so we would hunt the hogs back then, and we would relocate them or we would castrate them and make a kill for the food they provide, the meat is good eating and we wouldn’t waste anything. We would eat it and do that. And that’s where I try to respect the snake in the same way.

But yes, the monkeys are one thing too. They’re crazy and going nuts in [Marion County] Ocala. And I know there was a guy for a while that was tranquilizing them, and he was selling them to someplace in South Carolina that did animal testing for shampoo and stuff…I don’t think that’s right to do, but these monkeys are up there, and they’re spreading disease and they can be dangerous to people and have other impacts on the other native wildlife there.

M&C: Do you ever catch Cuban tree frogs or the African land snails too? Or if you see them, do you dispatch them or collect them?

Dusty Crum: Yes, mainly, we get paid to hunt python. So that’s my main objective. But along the way, if I see any other invasives, we’re more than encouraged to go ahead and collect those.

The state of Florida has opened the door to us on pretty much every exotic species. There’s just no bounty for the animal, but they’re encouraged to take them out.

Cayman, iguanas, tegus, lionfish, anything that we can do while we’re out in the field.

M&C: So to just to be clear, there’s only a monetary reward for turning in the python?

Dusty Crum: Correct. Yes. Through the program I’m working out of. I know one guy that’s made a really good business the last couple of years on trapping iguanas, and he’ll go to these Star islands in Miami and Sean Combs’ house and stuff and set traps and catch iguanas and these guys are making living like that now.

M&C: When you catch the pythons, do you ever turn them in alive or are they dead when you turn them in?

Dusty Crum: Yes, really in the first couple python hunts we could turn them in alive and now we kill them before we bring him into the station.

M&C: Do you feel like you’re getting ahead of the problem with the snakes?

Dusty Crum: I wouldn’t really say that. I know I did see a raccoon for the first time in five years, not long ago. And I seen some fox squirrels. I used to see fox squirrels out here in this place. And then, it was so overrun with pythons, the fox squirrels just disappeared.

Then the other day I saw a couple of the squirrels, so I’m thinking maybe at least in these localized areas, we’re making a little bit of a difference. We’ve taken over 3000 snakes out and for the exponential factor with half of them being females and potentially laying a hundred eggs a year, you’re taking future generations of snakes out with every snake captured. So that’s a good thing.

And doing nothing is not an option. We got to do what we can do until there’s a better solution. We’re hoping maybe there’s a scientific breakthrough or something that can modify the snakes genetically to make them sterile or something like that to where slowly they would die out. But we’re working on stuff like that too.

M&C: Who’s team Dusty Crum this season? Is it still the same? Is it Tom and Brittany?

Dusty Crum: Yes. Yes…And Gary and Jay. Yep. And we’ve got other people that are helping us out.

I’ve got some guest appearances, some old friends I used to hunt with. I’ve got some new scientists that we’re doing a lot of work with together in research, and we’ve got their insight.

So all in all, the show is going be what I’ve seen and everything so far, it’s going to be a hundred times better than the last season. We’re really getting this thing down and that it’s going to be a great, great program.  The premiere will show you really what’s at stake nowadays because the snakes have eliminated food sources and they’re spreading every different direction, trying to establish new territory.

And it puts things in perspective. If we don’t put this fire out now, it’s going to spread and it’s going to keep spreading. So it’s not a good situation to be in.

This season we went from the Keys all the way up to Lake Kissimmee, which is about in the middle of the state. So we’re tracking these snakes as they spread, and we put a lot of miles in, checking places out.

And some of these new places that the snakes are spread to, they’re not as plentiful. And so it’s a little bit harder hunting. We go more hours in between catches, but those snakes are more important than anything because those are the ones that are going to be populating and breeding those new areas.

M&C: For readers who live down in Florida or in the South, what are some of the telltale signs that a large snake has moved into your area?

Dusty Crum: Well, the first sign is lack of wildlife, is lack of anything you used to see, raccoons and birds and all the different things out. Now, you’re not seeing as much. That’s the first red flag there.

And as the food source is eliminated, we’re seeing them get into people’s chicken pens and goat pens in Naples [Florida] and people’s farms in Redlands and the Homestead area, and they’re eating people’s livestock and stuff. So you can see a slide through the mud and stuff with a big snake. If it doesn’t have footprints like an alligator would, it’s a big constrictor.

M&C: Now, Swamp People is a series that shows the gator explosion mainly in Louisiana. Does Florida have a gator problem like Louisiana?

Dusty Crum: Yes, there is. There really is a ton of gators. And right now though, since the mammals have been decimated, the gators are getting a run for their money with the pythons.

So the pythons are going to knock them back and go from there. But I hate to see anything happen to the alligators. We need them on our side, right now. So I’m all for trying to protect the gators and do what we can do. The gators are on our side.

The only problem we have any issue with alligators is when people feed them and people interact, they lose their fear of humans, and then, unfortunately, the gator has to die.

And it’s not the gator’s fault. It’s the human’s fault for feeding them, but they lose their fear of humans, and it’s bad news for kids or pets or anybody, anytime you go near the water.

The brand-new season of Guardians of the Glades premieres Tuesday, January 7, at 10 PM ET/PT on Discovery Channel.

In addition to watching the series on Discovery, viewers can check out new episodes each week by downloading the Discovery GO app.

Viewers can join the conversation on social media by using the hashtag #GuardiansoftheGlades and follow Discovery on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for the latest updates.

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