Austin American-Statesman, January 11, 2014
The unacceptable cost of 'gassing' rattlers
By Collette Adkins Giese
The horrid practice has now been outlawed in most states, but it still takes place here in Texas this time of year.
Hunters pour gasoline or ammonia down burrows where rattlesnakes hang out during chilly winter months. Sometimes the toxic flood kills whatever unfortunate animals are residing below. For the lucky, death comes almost immediately. For others it can take two, even three months.
But often, just as hoped, a startled snake comes rushing out of the hole, where a waiting hunter bags it and heads off to a rattlesnake roundup, where snakes are displayed, then slaughtered. Or they sell the snakes directly to the folks who fashion rattlesnake boots, belts, ashtrays and key chains.
For many good reasons, state wildlife officials are now considering making Texas the 30th state to outlaw the cruel practice of “gassing” snakes, which harms not only rattlers but hundreds of other animals — including 20 species of endangered animals that also live underground in Texas.
Foxes, lizards, toads and hundreds of insects that depend on underground shelters can be killed when snake dens are gassed.
Many involved in the trade of rattlesnakes will tell you that rattlesnake populations are doing just fine across the United States. But the best scientific evidence suggests many of the nation’s snakes and other reptiles fighting a losing battle for survival.
Due to threats such as ongoing habitat destruction, 1 in every 5 of the nation’s reptiles is now considered at risk of extinction.
From Louisiana eastward, struggling populations of eastern diamondback rattlers are struggling to the point that they are currently being considered for federal Endangered Species Act protection.
By comparison, western diamondback rattler populations are doing fairly well. Still, the best evidence suggests their populations are likely declining, and there’s no reason to believe that western diamondbacks could somehow magically sidestep the ever-escalating challenges of habitat destruction that are wiping out so many of our other reptiles across the U.S.
Yet the rattlesnake roundups continue, including one in Sweetwater that’s billed as the “World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup.”
Although several localities across the Southeastern U.S. have abandoned rattlesnake roundups in favor of educational wildlife festivals that display captive snakes, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama and Georgia still host lethal roundups every year.
Some of the most compelling research on declining populations of eastern diamondback rattlers stems from studies of snakes captured for roundups. The size and numbers of eastern diamondback rattlesnakes collected for four of those events over the past 25 years reflects a steady decline in the weights of even the prize-winning snakes, according to research by rattlesnake expert, Bruce Means, executive director of the Coastal Plains Institute.
Means also analyzed 50 years of data for the longest-running roundups and found the total number of captured rattlesnakes declined by 67 percent in the past two decades.
Anecdotal evidence suggests similar declines may be occurring at the Texas roundups, and more research needs to be done on the status of western diamondbacks populations.
In the meantime, by approving the proposal to ban “gassing” of rattlesnake dens, Texas would not only stop the unnecessary killing of other animals that share their underground homes with snakes, but get a jump on making sure western diamondbacks remain an iconic part of the Texas landscape for generations to come.
Giese is a biologist and staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Ariz., which focuses on the protection of reptiles and amphibians. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2014 Cox Media Group.
This article originally appeared here.