By Curbing Roundups and ‘Gassing,’ States Seek to Help the Hated Rattlesnake
By Marsha Mercer, Stateline*, June 13, 2016
In the ceaseless war of man versus rattlesnake, the rattlesnake has long been the loser. Now, some states are trying to give the sometimes deadly pit viper better odds of survival.
The Gadsen flag (right) is named after American general and statesman Christopher Gadsden (1724–1805), who designed it in 1775 during the American Revolution; Wikipedia
The shift follows a dramatic decline in some US rattlesnake populations, as habitats have been lost to development and the reptiles have been killed, accidentally and intentionally. And it is threatening old traditions and forcing people to come to grips with animals many would rather avoid.
The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife plans to establish a colony of timber rattlesnakes on an uninhabited island in hopes of saving the dwindling native species. Texas wildlife officials are writing a rule that could prohibit the use of gasoline to harvest Western diamondback rattlesnakes, a practice that is already banned in 29 states.
The rattlesnake roundups that were once common across the South and Midwest — in which the snakes are bought by the pound, displayed, decapitated, skinned, fried and eaten, or carted away to be turned into wallets and belts — have largely fallen out of favor. Today, rattlesnake events occur in only six states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas — and some leave the snakes unharmed.
"In the past, the snakes were hated and exterminated," said Collette Adkins, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which advocates bans on gassing and rattlesnake roundups. "Ecological values change. Cultural values change."
With greater recognition of the value of all species to the ecosystem, preservation has become a priority in wildlife management. Rattlesnakes play a role as a predator of rodents and food for top carnivores like hawks and eagles.
Minnesota, for example, paid a bounty for timber rattlesnakes until 1989. The state put the snake on its threatened species list in 1996 and in 2009 adopted a Timber Rattlesnake Recovery Plan, which involves habitat restoration and public outreach and education. Landowners who find a rattlesnake on their property can call a Rattlesnake Responder to have it relocated rather than killed.
Convincing people of the need for a hated species, though, is still a tough sell, wildlife experts agree.
"Very, very young toddlers are imprinted early on with phobias about snakes," said biologist D. Bruce Means, executive director of the nonprofit Coastal Plains Institute and Land Conservancy and an authority on the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake.
"State legislatures are faced with constituents who would be aghast at the idea of saving or protecting these creatures," said Means, an adjunct professor at Florida State University. "If it was butterflies we were talking about, or birds, something cute and cuddly, it would be different."
While the Western diamondback rattlesnake is plentiful, the Eastern diamondback and timber rattlesnakes need government help to avoid extinction in some parts of the country, advocates say. Washington state is among those attaching radio monitors to rattlesnakes to study their habits and habitat and plan for their management.
But listing a species as federally endangered takes years, and landowners often want to avoid that designation because it limits land use. Last September, the US Fish and Wildlife Service took a more modest step, proposing its first listing of a rattlesnake as threatened — the Eastern massasauga, sistrurus catenatus, in the upper Midwest. And many states have listed species of rattlers as threatened, endangered or species of concern, which typically makes killing them illegal except when someone’s life is in danger.
Despite its fearsome appearance and reputation, rattlesnakes tend to be shy, docile creatures that stay away from humans and strike only when they feel threatened, herpetologists say. About 60 percent of bites occur on the hands and forearms, a sign that the person was reaching toward the snake.
An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people are bitten by poisonous snakes in the US every year, but because of prompt medical care, an average of only five people die of poisonous snake bites each year.
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