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For Immediate Release, May 9, 2012

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

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake Closer to Endangered Species Act Protection

World's Largest Rattlesnake Threatened by Habitat Destruction, Persecution

TALLAHASSEE— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that the eastern diamondback rattlesnake may qualify for Endangered Species Act protection. Today’s finding responds to a 2011 petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, noted snake expert Dr. Bruce Means, Protect All Living Species and One More Generation. Eastern diamondbacks are the largest rattlesnakes in the world and are in steep decline because of habitat destruction and human persecution.

“Eastern diamondbacks are rapidly disappearing all across the southeastern United States, and in some states they’ve more or less vanished. They need Endangered Species Act protection to survive,” said the Center’s reptile-and-amphibian specialist, Collette Adkins Giese. “The Endangered Species Act has a nearly perfect record of saving species on the brink of extinction — it’s our best tool for saving diamondbacks.”

The eastern diamondback was once abundant in longleaf pine forests across the Southeast, but only 2 percent to 3 percent of the species’ original habitat still exists. Also, with no limits on rattlesnake harvest in many southern states, the animals continue to be targeted for their skins and for sport. Because the snakes are habitat specialists that depend on pine and other open-canopy forests, habitat destruction and fragmentation are the principal cause of their decline. 

Today’s decision triggers a full review of the snake’s status by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which must make a final decision on Endangered Species Act protection within a year. The eastern diamondback will likely be added to the list of candidate species that need protection, but not until the Service works its way through a backlog of species already under consideration for listing. As part of a historic legal settlement with the Center, the Service will make decisions on whether hundreds of imperiled species should be added to the endangered species list by 2017.

“The loss of longleaf pine habitats threatens the rich biodiversity of the coastal plains,” said Bruce Means, president of the Coastal Plains Institute and Land Conservancy.  “Protecting remaining patches of longleaf pine from unsustainable human development will help the diamondback and other species that depend on these forests, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, indigo snake and gopher tortoise.”

Exploitation by humans is also having a severe impact on remaining eastern diamondback populations. Thousands of the creatures are killed each year for their skins and meat, with no harvest limits, in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. And in Alabama and Georgia, eastern diamondbacks are targeted by “rattlesnake roundups” — festivals that offer prizes to encourage hunters to collect, then kill, the imperiled snakes. 

“So many people are scared of rattlesnakes and want to kill them. But all species are on this planet for a reason,” said 10-year-old student Carter Ries, founder of One More Generation. “We just want to make sure that these rattlers are going to be around for future generations.”

Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes pose little public safety risk; although they’re venomous, more people are killed every year by lightning strikes and bee stings. And the number of people who are bitten by snakes during outdoor activities is very low. Those most likely to be bitten are snake handlers who either keep venomous snakes in captivity or work with them professionally. Nevertheless, 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. “In the Southeast, we are blessed with a rich natural heritage of animals and plants. All of these species — even the rattlesnakes — should be allowed to exist.”

Eastern diamondback 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. They’re distinguished from other snakes by their large size, pattern of diamonds on their backs, dark tails with rattles and an 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: essentially extirpated in Louisiana, endangered in North Carolina, and limited in South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi; it has become uncommon in much of Florida and is declining in Georgia.
  • The rate of population decline is unknown but it has been estimated that just 3 percent of the historic population remains.
  • Analysis of four rattlesnake roundups in the Southeast showed a steady decline in the weights of prizewinning diamondbacks and the number collected.

For a link to photos of eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, please see:

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