WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Hunters participating in a pilot program aimed at helping eradicate giant, nonnative Burmese pythons from South Florida took 37 of the invasive constrictors, wildlife officials said Nov. 3.

Wildlife officials began issuing permits to snake experts in July in the first-ever state-sanctioned python hunt. Those permits, 15 in all, expired Oct. 31.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hopes to restart the program next year with up to 50 permits being issued. The commission says it's pleased with the data collected so far.

"This was more about finding where they are and seeing if we can contain their expansion," FWC exotic species coordinator Scott Hardin said.

Meanwhile, licensed hunters in the state can continue to kill the pythons in designated areas, including portions of the Everglades around Big Cypress National Preserve.

"If you're in there hunting, and you see a python, you can kill it," Hardin said.

He said roughly half the snakes killed during this initial permitted hunt were juveniles, confirming to experts that the snakes are reproducing in the wild. Information on locations where the snakes were killed also indicates they are expanding across South Florida.

The number of pythons in the region has exploded in the past decade to potentially tens of thousands, although no one can say for sure how many are out there.

Scientists believe the snakes were introduced when pet owners freed their snakes into the wild once they became too big to keep. They also think some Burmese pythons may have escaped in 1992 from pet shops battered by Hurricane Andrew and have been reproducing ever since.

Officials say the constrictors can produce up to 100 eggs at a time, and that they are disrupting the ecosystem's natural balance as they feed on birds, small rodents and other native species.

A bill is currently working its way through Congress aimed at banning the trade and import of pythons and other invasive snakes into the United States.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Story by ASSOCIATED PRESS