SSAR PositionHerpetologists. Prepared by Henry R. Mushinsky and Alan H. Savitzky with contributions from Edmund Brodie, Jr., William Brown, Jonathan Campbell, Kevin Enge, Lee Fitzgerald, Harry Greene, Patrick Gregory, John Jensen, Paul Moler, Charlie Painter, Andy Price, and Walter Timmerman.
Position of The American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists
Concernin Rattlesnake Conservation and RoundupsProposed position paper for the American Society of Ichthyologists and
The American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, an international
society of about 2,000 professional scientists who specialize in the biology and
conservation of fishes, amphibians, and reptiles, strongly opposes traditional
rattlesnake roundups. Such roundups promote overexploitation of natural
populations of wildlife, unnecessary killing and inhumane treatment of
individual animals, degradation of habitat, and promotion of outdated attitudes
toward important elements of America’s natural heritage. Found nowhere but
in the Americas, and especially diverse in the United States, the more than
thirty species of rattlesnakes comprise a distinctive component of North
America’s biodiversity, and one that is increasingly imperiled.
SUPPORTING INFORMATION AND DOCUMENTATION
Rattlesnakes are highly specialized predators
that use venom to immobilize and speed digestion of their prey. As top
carnivores, they help control rodent populations. Although feared by humans,
they are responsible for very few deaths in the United States compared with
other accidental sources of mortality. For rattlesnakes to persist, each species
must overcome unregulated hunting, harvesting for roundups, and significant
loss of habitat to agriculture and urbanization. Roundups began around 1940
and today attract thousands of spectators who observe rattlesnakes being treated
inhumanely, in a manner unlike any other vertebrate animal. About 15% of the
125,000 rattlesnakes harvested yearly are intentionally killed at roundups.
Many other species ecologically associated with rattlesnakes are harmed
because gasoline is used often to force snakes from dens. Enlightened
communities have opted to preserve the revenue generated from roundups by
successfully transforming roundups into alternative festivals. Our forefathers
viewed the rattlesnake as a symbol of strength and independence, a perception
1that deserves to be encouraged once again. The American Society of
Ichthyologists and Herpetologists supports an end to traditional rattlesnake
BIOLOGICAL ATTRIBUTES OF RATTLESNAKES. Herpetologists
consider rattlesnakes to be among the most highly specialized snakes.
Members of a lineage known as pitvipers, rattlesnakes possess the group’s
characteristic pair of pit organs on either side of the face, between the eyes and
nostrils. These remarkable structures are highly sensitive infrared detectors,
which enable rattlesnakes to sense their warm-bodied prey, even at night.
Rattlesnakes have a pair of hollow fangs in the upper jaw that are folded back
when not in use, but rotate into an erect position to deliver venom during a
strike. Although used occasionally in defense, the primary biological role of
the venom is to immobilize prey and facilitate digestion. Most rattlesnakes
prey on rodents and occasionally other small mammals such as rabbits and
ground squirrels; some smaller species feed primarily on lizards or frogs.
Ecologically, adult rattlesnakes are top carnivores.
Although the threat of snakebite continues to elicit fear in humans, bites by
venomous snakes today represent a minimal hazard to human health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 15 persons die from the
bite of a venomous snake each year in the United States, while, on average, 12
die from dog bites and 82 die from lightning strike.
All living rattlesnakes belong to the genera Crotalus and Sistrurus, fossils of
which date back about five million years. The greatest diversity of living
species occurs in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, but four
species range as far north as New England and Canada. Although traditionally
viewed as behaviorally simple animals, recent research has disclosed that
rattlesnakes have a sense of self-identity, exhibit parental care of their young,
recognize spatial arrangement of objects in the environment, and at times live in
THREATS TO RATTLESNAKES. To persist, each species of rattlesnake must
overcome unregulated hunting, harvesting for roundups, and significant loss of
habitat in response to agriculture and urbanization. Their life history traits are
shaped by evolutionary history and current conditions, and each species
responds differently to the destructive pressures exerted by human activities.
Geographic location and body size are two factors that can influence how
rattlesnakes are affected by human activities. Relatively small species that live
2in mountainous regions of the southwestern United States and Mexico have
limited distributions, and narrow habitat requirements, making them
particularly vulnerable to habitat alteration and human disturbances. Relatively
large species, especially those in the northern states, may take as long as ten
years to become sexually mature and then reproduce only once every third year.
Furthermore, many rattlesnakes require large expanses of habitat to complete
their annual movements, sometimes traveling many kilometers in a year. With
increasing urbanization and habitat fragmentation, humans are reducing the
habitat available for rattlesnakes and increasing the likelihood of encounters
with them. The pattern of creating small, isolated populations of rattlesnakes
that are in close contact with people may be tipping the balance against the
long-term persistence of some species. As long ago as 1992, biologists
concluded that 50% of all pit vipers might be threatened with extinction.
Nonetheless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists only three species of
rattlesnakes as federally threatened or endangered. Several states have
regulations to protect particular species or isolated populations of rattlesnakes.
As agencies develop plans for the conservation of rattlesnakes, they will need to
tailor them to the specific challenges confronting each species.
Five rattlesnake species are hunted in eight states. The Western Diamondback
Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) is hunted in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico;
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (C. adamanteus) in Alabama, Florida, and
Georgia; Prairie Rattlesnake (C. viridis) in Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and New
Mexico; Timber Rattlesnake, (C. horridus) in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Alabama,
West Virginia, and Florida; and occasionally the Black-tailed Rattlesnake (C.
molossus) in New Mexico and Texas.
In earlier times the perceived hazard of snakebite inspired organized efforts to
control rattlesnake populations and government bounties for killing rattlesnakes
date back to 1719. In the northeastern states, hunters gathered at large,
communal dens to kill snakes as they congregated for hibernation. Similar
hunts, both in spring and fall, occurred in other regions of the United States.
Records from a single county in central Florida indicate that between 1935 and
1938 about 7500 rattlesnakes and 2000 coral snakes (an unrelated venomous
snake) were collected for bounty. Bounties also were placed on rattlesnakes in
Iowa, New York, Minnesota, and Wisconsin during the mid-1900s. Some
states, such as South Dakota, hired professional hunters to destroy rattlesnakes.
Over time this practice of killing rattlesnakes spread to southwestern states.
3RATTLESNAKE ROUNDUPS. Organized “rattlesnake catching drives,” the
precursors of modern roundups, date to 1939 and 1949 in two communities in
Oklahoma, where they evolved into publicity events for local chambers of
commerce. These drives were conducted in the spring of the year, to coincide
with the emergence of rattlesnakes from their dens. Early events involved
several thousand spectators, who watched as the hunters sold their catches by
the pound to the organizing groups. The funds were provided by local ranch
owners, who contributed a few cents per acre as a reward for clearing their land
of rattlesnakes, which they considered to be dangerous to cattle. An estimated
1500-3000 snakes per year were captured and destroyed in each drive, despite
evidence from a 1950’s statewide survey of Texas veterinarians, indicating that
loss of cattle to snakebite was negligible. Special awards were given to
individuals who captured the largest snake or were bitten during the drive.
In 1958, an Oklahoma event billed as the “world’s largest” was promoted by
the local Board of Development; it was later turned over to the Jaycees. After
the first hunt, uncounted thousands of captured rattlesnakes were decapitated
and deposited in the city dump. The event has since become a focal point for
the community, involving presentation of trophies and monetary prizes to the
rattlesnake hunters and attracting tens of thousands of spectators who attend
rattlesnake dances, craft shows, and cooking contests. By the late 1980s
roundups were producing profits used to fund charitable projects, suggesting
that roundup organizers had good intentions for their efforts. Today, some
roundups are organized by private individuals for profit.
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. Analysis has proven challenging because of
inconsistencies and variation in recording the numbers of hunters, area hunted,
and numbers of species included in the total catch. For example, hunters may
broaden the areas in which they hunt and bring rattlesnakes captured at
considerable distances from the location of the roundup. Collecting rattlesnakes
at communal dens during the spring or autumn months can quickly deplete a
local population. All rattlesnakes give birth to live young, and pregnant
females often are especially conspicuous and therefore vulnerable to collection.
Such females must bask in exposed locations to raise the temperature of their
developing embryos, and in some species pregnant females aggregate at special
sites, increasing the likelihood that these especially critical members of the
population will be subject to capture.
4Although subject to error, the information collected during rattlesnake roundups
provides a reasonable index of the annual hunting pressure on rattlesnakes as a
result of organized events across the country. Information from five roundups in
Oklahoma suggests that the take of Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes ranges
from 6,000 to 10,000 individuals each year. At one large roundup alone, the
average number of rattlesnakes captured annually between 1959 and 1991 was
5,469, with a mean total mass of 2855 kg (more than three tons). Over that
period 91,365 kg (more than 100 tons) of rattlesnakes, or 174,996 individuals,
were captured. Interestingly, peak years occurred about once per decade and
were followed by a year in which relatively few individuals were captured.
Based on 16 roundups in Texas, estimates range from 70,500 to 112,600 per
year. Three roundups in Georgia and one in Alabama accounted for an
estimated 1,000 -1,600 snakes per year. Analysis of harvest data from four
roundups, collected between 1985 and 1993, indicated a non-significant but
consistent decline in purchases of rattlesnakes at all four locations.
Clearly, roundups cause significant mortality in rattlesnakes, but they represent
only part of the total human-caused mortality in these species. Researchers
have estimated that, for both Western Diamondback and Eastern Diamondback
Rattlesnakes, only about 15% of the total annual harvest originates from
roundups. During the two-year period 1990-92, Florida snake-skin dealers
reported purchasing 3,647 Eastern Diamondback and 366 Timber Rattlesnakes
from Florida and 18,289 and 4,346, respectively, from outside the state. Florida
snake-skin dealers purchased 40,056 Eastern Diamondbacks and 7,659 Timber
Rattlesnakes from 1990-94, collected in Florida and five nearby southeastern
states. Currently, the annual harvest of all rattlesnakes in the United States
exceeds 125,000 per year.
In addition to the effects of roundups on snake populations, some of the
methods used to collect snakes are detrimental to the environment and to non-
target species. In Florida, hunters have ignited isolated patches of saw palmetto
(Serenoa repens), collecting rattlesnakes as they moved to escape the fire. In
southeastern states, Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes and many other species
of wildlife seek shelter in the deep burrows of Gopher Tortoises (Gopherus
polyphemus). Hunters introduce gasoline into tortoise burrows, collecting
rattlesnakes as they are driven out. No doubt many non-target species of
wildlife are killed by this unethical hunting practice. Research has
demonstrated that gassing is harmful to rattlesnakes, tortoises, and other species
that co-occur in dens or burrows. Gassing burrows is prohibited within the
5range of the Gopher Tortoise, which is now protected in every state in which it
resides. However, in southwestern states, beyond the range of the Gopher
Tortoise, gasoline is sprayed into the deep recesses of rattlesnake dens, and
snakes are collected as they attempt to escape.
ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS. Apart from the negative aspects of rattlesnake
roundups on the populations of both snakes and non-target species and their
habitats, strong ethical reasons exist to oppose the practice of rattlesnake
roundups. Traditional roundups often include large enclosures or pits in which
snakes are maintained at high densities for extended periods and are subjected
to continual provocation, encouraging them to rattle and strike. Inflated
balloons are displayed before captive rattlesnakes to provoke a strike to burst
the balloon for the entertainment of onlookers. Individuals are kicked, burned
with cigarettes, have their rattles removed while still alive and funneled full of
liquor. Rattlesnakes may be shipped from roundup to roundup in wooden crates
without food or water, and some individuals are crushed to death or die of over-
heating and dehydration during transport. Snakes are handled roughly and are
decapitated and butchered in large numbers in front of an audience, including
small children, as entertainment. It is hard to imagine subjecting any other
vertebrate animal to such thoughtless and inhumane treatment. Indeed, as
scientists we are subject to requirements that our study animals be treated
humanely, and it is reasonable to expect similar treatment by others.
COMMUNITY ALTERNATIVES TO ROUNDUPS. Former rattlesnake
roundups have been transformed successfully into other types of community
festivals designed to raise funds for charitable organizations. An enlightened
community in Florida, responding in part to efforts by the Gopher Tortoise
Council, changed its rattlesnake roundup to a rattlesnake festival. In San
Antonio, Florida, organizers use well-maintained rattlesnakes and
nonvenomous species for an environmental education program. The
organization called RAGE, Rattlesnake And Gopher Enthusiasts, sponsors the
festival, which features “turtle” races (using mechanical Gopher Tortoises), arts
and crafts, music, and a petting farm featuring common livestock. Funds raised
by the festival are used to support local nonprofit organizations. In response to
declining populations of Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes and the harmful
collecting technique of gassing Gopher Tortoise burrows, organizers of the
Fitzgerald Georgia Rattlesnake Roundup changed the focus of the festival and
now celebrate The Wild Chicken Festival. At these festivals in Georgia and
Florida, participants learn factual information about rattlesnakes and other
6wildlife and most leave with an understanding that snakes are beneficial for
BENEFITS OF RATTLESNAKES TO HUMANS. In addition to the ethical
issues, practical reasons exist to value and conserve rattlesnakes. Researchers
are beginning to unlock the secrets of snake venoms. Substances derived from
venoms are ingredients in numerous medications, such as those used to treat
stroke victims and to prevent the growth of cancerous tumors. More than a
dozen diagnostic tests and drugs are derived from snake venoms. Because the
muscles that power the noise-making rattle are so highly resistant to fatigue and
resemble human heart muscle, they have proven to be a valuable model system
in biomedical research. Ecologically, rattlesnakes excel at pest control and are
especially proficient at hunting rodents. Because of the large number of
rattlesnakes harvested for roundups each year, hundreds of thousands of rodents
that would have been consumed by them remained free to wreak havoc on the
human enterprise. In recent years, increases in rodent populations have led to
the spread of dangerous diseases, such as Hantavirus, and one can only
speculate whether efforts to control rattlesnake populations have exacerbated
CONCLUSIONS. Rattlesnakes are treated differently than most other
commercially harvested vertebrate species. For example, the harvesting of
sharks, animals that also elicit fear by humans, is highly regulated to promote
their conservation. 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
The more than thirty species of rattlesnake comprise a unique component of
North America’s biodiversity, and one that is increasingly imperiled. By virtue
of their novelty to European colonists and their perceived nobility, rattlesnakes
hold an honored place in the early history of the United States. They appeared
on numerous battle flags during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, including
the first Union Jack, which was raised over a Revolutionary warship by the
young Lt. John Paul Jones. Our forefathers viewed the rattlesnake as a symbol
of strength and independence, a perception that deserves to be encouraged once
7Just a few decades ago top predators such as hawks and wolves were regarded
as “vermin” and were subjected to bounty hunts and wanton killing. Today,
however, these magnificent species are valued elements of our natural heritage,
the intriguing subjects of documentary films and ecotourism. The American
Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists supports an end to traditional
rattlesnake roundups and encourages local communities to replace such
anachronistic events with festivals that celebrate the role of rattlesnakes in
nature and recognizes their significance as an historic symbol of our nation’s
strength and independence.
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