Environmental groups have convinced the federal government to propose listing the poisonous eastern diamondback rattlesnake as an endangered species in order to protect the reptile from “human persecution.”
“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,” Bill Matturro, spokesman for Protect All Living Species, said in welcoming the government’s decision, announced earlier this month. “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.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service says they are taking comments on listing the snake because environmental groups presented “substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that listing the eastern diamondback rattlesnake may be warranted.”
The diamondback is the largest rattlesnake in North America, and the range of the eastern species encompasses the coastal plain of the southeastern U.S. from North Carolina to south Florida, and west to Mississippi and Louisiana.
In addition to humans, environmentalists say the snake is at risk of extinction because its habitat, longleaf pine forests, are also disappearing.
Federal officials estimate that 55 percent of this species can be found on private property. On public property where the remaining 45 percent are believed to be located, federal officials would have the authority to place restrictions on the use of that land if the reptile were listed as an endangered species.
The federal government frowns on harassing or killing protected species, and has been known to impose some hefty fines. There is an exception to the rules if the person is defending lives or property, but the government has to first believe one’s life or property is in danger.
Fined for defending herself
In 1991, an underwater photographer was fined $10,000 for harassing pilot whales near Hawaii after his assistant Lisa Costello was nearly drowned by one of the creatures when it grabbed her leg and plunged her 40 feet beneath the sea.
A rancher in Montana fought the government for seven years after he was fined $5,000 in 1989 for shooting a grizzly bear. An Interior Department review board finally concluded that the rancher, John Shuler, was in imminent danger and shot the bear in self-defense.
The fine was dismissed.
“The default position by the federal government is to prosecute,” said Rob Gordon, a biologist and senior adviser for strategic outreach at the Heritage Foundation. “Government has a history of absurdly going after people who are attacked by federally protected species.”
Such a listing would outlaw some popular southern festivals called “Rattlesnake Roundups,” wherein poisonous snakes are literally rounded up and killed, and rodeos, where the snakes are caught, used in races, and then released.
Affecting religious practices
What remains unclear is the effect such a listing would have on those southern religious organizations that celebrate their faith in Jesus Christ by taking up serpents, a practice also known as “snake handling.”
Snakebites are uncommon, but because of their potent venom, rattlesnakes are responsible for the majority of fatalities from snakebites; eastern and western varieties of diamondback rattlesnakes account for almost 95 percent of these deaths, according to the American Family Physician, a peer-reviewed journal.
The government will take one year to receive comments and conduct studies on whether the snake should be listed as endangered.
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