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For Immediate Release, August 22, 2011

Contact:  Collette Adkins Giese, Center for Biological Diversity, (651) 955-3821
Bruce Means, Coastal Plains Institute and Land Conservancy, (850) 681-6208
Bill Matturro, Protect All Living Species, (229) 872-3553
Jim Ries, One More Generation, (877) 664-8426

As One Snake Is Saved, Scientists Identify Another Needing Protection

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake Suffers Sharp Declines From Habitat Destruction, Human Persecution

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.— Just days after the Lake Erie water snake was declared recovered and removed from the federal endangered species list, snake researcher Dr. Bruce Means and three conservation groups (the Center for Biological Diversity, Protect All Living Species and One More Generation) today asked the government to save another snake, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, by adding it to the list of protected species.

Dr. Means and the groups submitted an extensive scientific petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service detailing the snake’s natural history and decline toward extinction. The petition initiates a formal, multiyear review process under the Endangered Species Act to determine whether the diamondback warrants protection as a “threatened” species.

“We’re seeking to protect the diamondback under the Endangered Species Act because it has a nearly perfect record of saving imperiled species,” said Collette Adkins Giese, a conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Endangered Species Act just saved the Lake Erie water snake — it’s the surest tool we have to save the diamondback rattlesnake too.”

The Lake Erie water snake was listed as a threatened species in 1999 with a population of just 1,500-2,000 snakes. It was delisted earlier this month after its population grew to more than 11,000 as a result of habitat protection, public education and protection from killing. Similar recovery actions are also needed for the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, which is facing the same threats the water snake faced.

Dr. Bruce Means and colleagues first documented the decline of the eastern diamondback rattlesnake in a paper published in 2000 in the scientific journal Herpetological Natural History. The paper concluded that the species was “declining almost all over its range” and that human exploitation was having “a severe impact on remaining populations.” He has conducted fieldwork in the Southeast for 40 years, including extensive research on the eastern diamondback; he is an adjunct professor at Florida State University and is president of the Coastal Plains Institute. 

“The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is a wildlife icon of North America. Africa has its lion, Asia its tiger, and we can boast of this marvelous ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ snake,” said Dr. Means. “Like so many others, it’s a wildlife treasure that we must not allow to go extinct. Remaining habitat for the snake must be preserved, and negative public attitudes toward these nonaggressive animals must be reversed.”

The eastern diamondback was once abundant in longleaf pine savannas across the southeastern United States. But only 2 percent to 3 percent of the original habitat remains. Exploitation by humans is also having a severe impact. Thousands of the rattlesnakes are killed each year for their skins and meat with no limits on annual harvest in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. And in Alabama and Georgia, eastern diamondbacks are targeted by “rattlesnake roundups” — gruesome festivals that offer prizes to encourage hunters to collect the imperiled snakes, which are exhibited and then slaughtered. 

"Sadly, the demise of the eastern diamondback is being incentivized by rattlesnake roundups,” said Jim Ries of One More Generation. “Converting these events to rattlesnake festivals where the species is celebrated for its value to the ecosystem would continue to generate revenue for local communities while preserving the species.”

The eastern diamondback rattlesnake poses little public safety risk. Although it is venomous, more people are killed every year by lightning strikes and bee stings.

The proportion of people who are snakebitten while engaging in outdoor activities is also very low. Those most likely to be bitten are snake handlers who either keep venomous snakes in captivity or work with them professionally. Still, malicious killings by those who perceive the snake as a threat are contributing to its decline.

“Survival of these snakes in large part depends on whether people continue to persecute them or instead choose to allow these amazing creatures to share the land with us,” said Bill Matturro of Protect All Living Species. “As a farmer and owner of wooded land, all living things on my land — including diamondback rattlesnakes — are both respected and protected.”

The Center for Biological Diversity recently signed a historic agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under which the agency agreed to make protection decisions for hundreds of species over the next several years. Although the agency is normally required to respond to a petition within one year, it is likely that any decision on the diamondback will be delayed as the Service works through the backlog of species needing protection and addressed in the agreement.

“Securing protection for the eastern diamondback is likely to take several years,” said Adkins Giese. “We hope that steps will be taken in the interim to protect the eastern diamondback and prevent further population declines.”

The eastern diamondback is the largest rattlesnake in the world. Adults are typically four to five feet long and weigh four to five pounds, but a big snake can reach six feet in length and weigh 12 pounds or more. The eastern diamondback is distinguished from other snakes by its large size, dorsal pattern of diamonds, yellowish unpatterned belly, dark tail with rattle, and infrared-sensitive pit between the eye and nostril. 

Scientific studies over the past decade have documented range-wide population declines and significant range contractions for the eastern diamondback: 

  • The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is absent or extremely rare across large portions of its former range. It has essentially been extirpated in Louisiana, is endangered in North Carolina, has limited range in South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, and has become uncommon in much of Florida. It is also declining in Georgia;
  • The rate of population decline is unknown but it has been estimated that just 3 percent of the historic population remains; and
  • Analysis of data from four rattlesnake roundups in the southeastern United States showed a steady decline in the weights of prize-winning eastern diamondbacks and the number collected.

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