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Rattlesnake roundups-those festive hunts that result in the death of thousands of the vipers each year-as well as some other snake-harvesting practices, could be phased out if a position paper co-authored by Old Dominion University herpetologist Alan Savitzky proves to be influential.

The paper was accepted this fall as the official position of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH) and it has since been endorsed by two other professional societies.

Savitzky, professor of biological sciences, drafted the document together with Henry Mushinsky of the University of South Florida. The authors hope the document will gain the same sort of protection for rattlesnakes that only a few decades ago was provided by law to predators such as hawks and wolves.

Organized hunts for poisonous snakes date to the early 1700s in America. Governments, civic organizations, businesses, ranchers and farmers have stirred up interest in the hunts and often paid bounties in order to control snake populations.

Almost always, the hunts have been based on fear of snakebites. But the position paper argues that the 15 or so human deaths from snakebites in the United States each year do not justify the nearly 20,000 rattlesnakes killed annually as part of roundups.

The paper also cites a Texas study that found that the loss of livestock from snakebites is negligible.

Five rattlesnake species are legally hunted in the states of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
(Canebrake rattlesnakes in the eastern half of Virginia are protected as endangered species by state law, and it is illegal statewide to hunt rattlesnakes for commercial purposes.)

Savitzsky noted that rattlesnakes occur only in the New World and that their strange appearance caught the attention of early colonists. "The first specimen studied scientifically was sent to England from the Virginia colony, so our commonwealth has a long cultural history with these impressive snakes," he said.

"Many rattlesnakes have long life spans and low rates of reproduction, making them especially vulnerable to over-exploitation, and some populations are at additional risk due to loss of habitat," he explained. "These impressive predators need our protection and appreciation, not collection for entertainment or sale."
The largest roundups are in Texas and Oklahoma and date to the 1940s. In recent decades, these roundups have become large festivals, drawing dozens of rattlesnake hunters and thousands of spectators who come to celebrate the vipers' capture.

"The biological ramifications of decades of rattlesnake roundups are difficult to assess, but they have great potential to affect snake populations negatively, and it is difficult to predict when rattlesnake harvests will push local populations beyond the point of recovery," states the paper, which is titled "Position of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists Concerning Rattlesnake Conservation and Roundups."

ASIH, whose members include 2,000 scientists, "strongly opposes traditional rattlesnake roundups," the paper states, because of the unnecessary killing of wildlife, threats to biodiversity, inhumane treatment of animals, damage done by hunters to natural habitats, and the promotion of negative attitudes toward creatures that are important elements of America's natural heritage. The paper also points out the value to humans of the pest control-of rodents, mostly-that rattlesnakes provide.

Some traditional roundups have been transformed into rattlesnake awareness festivals that feature humane exhibits and educational programs, and do not result in rattlesnakes being tortured or killed. The ASIH endorses this trend.

"Rattlesnakes are treated differently than most other commercially harvested vertebrate species. For example, the harvesting of sharks, animals that also elicit fear in humans, is highly regulated to promote their conservation," according to the paper. "Unfortunately, the cornerstones of wildlife conservation-controlling commercial use and regulating the take of wildlife-have not been applied broadly to rattlesnakes. Thus, rattlesnakes are widely hunted and sold for profit, both dead and alive, without adequate regulation or monitoring by wildlife agencies."
The paper can be found online at www.asih.org/files/pprattlesnake.pdf.

This article was posted on: December 6, 2006

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