Groups petition feds to protect Eastern diamondback rattler

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Groups petition feds to protect Eastern diamondback rattler

Post  Admin on Wed May 30, 2012 10:33 pm

Rattlesnake. Few words stir more emotion, especially for someone walking in the woods. The Eastern diamondback just isn't the kind of cuddly animal that prompts people to buy T-shirts hoping to help save it from the brink of extinction.

But a small coalition of four conservation groups has convinced federal wildlife officials to take a closer look at the venomous reptile to determine if its numbers have dropped low enough that it needs federal protection as a threatened or endangered species. Locally, snake experts agree fewer diamondbacks, especially large ones, are seen in the Volusia-Flagler area than 25 years ago, but differ over whether that means the population is in trouble locally.

A recent announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set off a passionate debate among snake experts and outdoor enthusiasts, while leaving others scratching their heads.

Some wonder if listing the diamondback, the largest rattlesnake in the world, would really prevent people from killing it on sight. Others wonder why anyone should even care if the deadly apex predator is dwindling in numbers.

"This is going to be an interesting debate," said Charlie Faulkner, a long-time local resident who oversees permitting for large-scale development projects.

A federal listing for a species found in so many different habitats across Florida could have huge implications for people trying to manage large tracts of forestlands and other properties, Faulkner said. "We need to make sure whatever decisions are based on good, defensible science and not emotion."

The coalition of conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and the Coastal Plains Institute Inc., petitioned the wildlife service last year. Institute President Bruce Means, Tallahassee, has been concerned about the rattlesnake for years and has written about the decline in both number and weight of snakes across the southeastern United States.

After reviewing the petition, the service concluded "substantial scientific" information indicated a listing might be warranted. Now the service has put out a call for additional information from other agencies and interested parties as it launches a more in-depth review. Afterwards, the service could make one of three conclusions, either that listing is warranted or not, or that listing is warranted but precluded by other obligations.

Terry Farrell, a Stetson University professor who studies snakes, supports the review and believes the snake should be protected.

"They're declining throughout their entire geographic range, not just Florida," he said. "They have been lost almost entirely from Louisiana and North Carolina."

Coastal habitats and other areas where the snake lives have been dramatically impacted by habitat loss and fragmentation, said Farrell and others.

"People and rattlesnakes don't react very well," Farrell said. "But it's mostly one-sided with the rattlesnakes faring poorly due to the interaction."

Carl Barden, owner of the Reptile Discovery Center in DeLand, said it would be "premature" to list the rattlesnake.

"Rattlesnakes are grand, spectacular and splendid," said Barden, but are still found in "every single county in Florida, including counties that are grossly overdeveloped."

Barden also owns a business that extracts venom from snakes and sells it to a company that manufactures life-saving antivenin used to treat snakebites. When local animal control officers pick up nuisance rattlesnakes, they take them to him, and he said those numbers haven't changed in 20 years. "We still see these animals come out of Deltona and DeLand."

Barden knows he could be criticized, with people saying he fears the listing could affect his ability to obtain wild snakes for venom collection, but he said he would fully expect an exception to the rules for anti-venin producers.

"I'm not suggesting for a second the animal hasn't declined," said Barden. "But does the diamondback warrant a threatened status based solely on assumptions based on anecdotal information? There's not enough science out there yet to say we have a problem."

Other experts voice similar concerns, particularly in Florida.

"There are a lot of rattlesnakes out there," said Kevin Enge, a research herpetologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "It occurs throughout Florida and is more or less a habitat generalist."

Enge serves on a rattlesnake study task force launched in the Southeastern United States last year by the Orianne Society, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the indigo snake and other species that share its habitat.

The group is conducting new research and reviewing existing data, said Orianne Society Director Fred Antonio, a herpetologist and former curator for the Central Florida Zoo.

A lot of the conclusions about diamondbacks "are fairly subjective," Antonio said, without a lot of numbers to back them up. "We're trying to get a picture, a snapshot of the present and a forecast for the future for diamondbacks."

It may be six months to a year before the task force work is done, after the July deadline for the federal decision, he said. But, the study group may put a summary of its information together for the wildlife service this summer.

All the experts agreed that simply listing the snake probably wouldn't stop people from killing it on sight.

"I adore these animals, but I think management techniques are often misguided," Barden said. "If you think some guy on a hunting trip is not going to shoot this snake because it's protected, I think we're kidding ourselves."

Enge said the listing won't stop people from killing snakes in their yards, either.

He also said he really doesn't have a great answer for people who ask what would happen if the diamondback disappeared.

"I'm not sure we'd see any difference. Lots of snakes eat rodents," he said. "But they are part of nature and I do love them."

The experts agreed looking at the bigger picture and large tracts of land for all the species found there, would be a more effective way to ensure the long-term survival of the rattlesnake.

Faulkner, meanwhile, is trying to figure out what the actions could mean for his industry. For example, he said, a landowners' ability to manage undeveloped land for people and animals by burning regularly with prescribed fire could be significantly impacted if the rattlesnake becomes a protected endangered species.
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