“Rattlesnake roundups” are contests calling for hunters to bring in as many snakes as they can catch in a year, at which point the snakes are slaughtered and sold for skin and meat. Six states still host these killing contests: Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
Roundups are driving some species of rattlesnakes toward extinction. A recent study analyzing 50 years of roundup data found eastern diamondback rattlesnakes in sharp decline due to roundup pressure and habitat loss. Rattlesnakes play a key role in the food web, especially in terms of rodent control.
And roundups are harmful to many species, not just rattlesnakes. To catch snakes for the event, hunters spray gasoline into tortoise burrows, destroying the burrows and often killing the animals inside. More than 350 species depend on tortoise burrows for food and shelter. Roundup organizers claim that hunters no longer use gassing to catch snakes, but in January 2010, wildlife officials in Georgia apprehended four men who had gassed 50 tortoise burrows to collect snakes for the rattlesnake roundup in Whigham.
Although roundup organizers claim that the events provide environmental education, no meaningful wildlife education — emphasizing the importance of saving native species — is provided. Handling venomous snakes in front of the public and then killing the snakes is the opposite of wildlife education.
Nor do roundups protect public health. There are many more annual fatalities in the United States from dog bites, lightning strikes and bee stings than from venomous snake bites. And in fact, the majority of snake bites occur when humans try to capture or kill snakes — so rattlesnake roundups themselves endanger public health by encouraging the public to do just that.
Finally, roundups are far from necessary to generate community revenue. Many communities that used to hold roundups have successfully changed the focus of their revenue-generating annual events. For example, Claxton, Ga., transformed its roundup into a Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival, which includes no collection contest or snake killings. And the town of Fitzgerald, Ga., replaced its roundup with a Wild Chicken Festival, which organizers say has been an enormous success.
The Center is working to protect rattlesnakes, gopher tortoises and the 350 other wildlife species that are harmed by rattlesnake roundups. In early 2010, we asked Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue to outlaw roundups throughout the state, as well as requesting that Georgia's attorney general investigate the gassing and destruction of tortoise burrows for rattlesnake roundups. The next year, we and allies sent letters to law-enforcement officials in Grady and Evans counties, Georgia, calling for enforcement of state wildlife laws at rattlesnake roundups and sent letters to wildlife officials in Georgia and Alabama urging them to stop rattlesnake hunters from using poisons that harm imperiled gopher tortoises. In addition, we filed a 2011 petition seeking federal protection for the primary target of the roundups: the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. In January 2013, the Center filed a formal notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its failure to protect the rattlesnake.
We saw success in the realm of roundups in early 2012, when the Evans County Wildlife Club in Claxton, Georgia, decided to change its rattlesnake roundup to a wildlife festival where snakes would be celebrated instead of collected by the hundreds and butchered for their meat and skins. In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the eastern diamondback rattlesnake may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act and launched a full status review of the imperiled snake.
But that wasn't the end of rattlesnake roundups. In 2013, the Center and allies presented a petition with more than 48,000 signatures to the Whigham Community Club, asking that its upcoming roundup — the last in the state of Georgia — be changed into a wildlife-friendly festival void of snake-killing. We did the same on March 13 of that year: With the city of Opp, Ala., planning to host its annual rattlesnake rodeo the following weekend, we presented a petition with more than 55,000 signatures to the city of Op asking that the city host a no-kill "rattlesnake rodeo" wildlife festival.
Rattlesnake photo by Nick Kakouros/Flickr