Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Not Counting Rattlesnakes

Jaycees measure the length of a western diamondback rattlesnake in the research pit at the World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas, March 14. The Jaycees also record the weight and sex of the snake but not where it was caught.

Early every spring, dozens of bounty hunters canvass the hilly brush country of West Texas for western diamondback rattlesnakes.

The hunters know where they’re going. They’ve done this before, seen preceding generations do the same. Some talk about the dens they search as “my dens.” They have relationships with ranchers who unwillingly host the serpents on their land. Some are ranchers themselves. They know the geology, the topography.

If you can imagine the perfect army for counting snakes, this is it. It’s conceivable that, armed with radio transmitters and tags, they could track snakes and gather rich, meaningful data on rattlesnake populations, about which herpetologists know disturbingly little.

There is great need for this knowledge. The only solid information about the western diamondback in West Texas — a crucial predator that has helped regulate ecosystems here for millions of years — is that it is plentiful. The snake is everywhere. It creeps from under foundations, lurks in the labyrinths we don’t see.

I went on a “snake call” early this year with a team of volunteers who catch western diamondbacks and other venomous critters from homes and relocate them. Under a dilapidated old house near Breckenridge, they caught one snake and spotted several others but gave up after a couple hours. The crawlspace was perfect habitat for the western diamondback. The group leader, Bobby Stevens, said they could extract 100 snakes and more would move in.

“It’s like trying to hold back the ocean,” Stevens said. “Mother nature’s gonna win.”

But some hunters — especially those who comb ranchland for dens — are not in it to establish something as boring as ecological data to benefit wildlife management or posterity. These hunters do it for money and spectacle, so the goal is catch as many snakes as possible without reducing the population for next spring’s hunt.

The hitch: no one knows how many western diamondback rattlesnakes live in Texas, so there is no way to know how that population is affected.

‘Rattlesnake populations have never been monitored in a scientifically reliable manner.’— Clark E. Adams & John K. Thomas

To pad their catch, some hunters feed a tube from a gas can into snake holes as far as it will go and pump petrochemical fumes into the dens. The snakes flee and are nabbed at the exit. This practice, known as “gassing,” is wholly unregulated. (Some in the rattlesnake industry prefer the politically correct term “fuming.”)

A hunter can pump as much gas as he wants into a den. But good hunters shake the can up and introduce only a small dose of fumes, said Rob McCann, a goateed, barrel-chested functionary for the Junior Chamber of Commerce, or Jaycees, a fraternal organization. The poison should be in just the right amount that the snakes abandon their homes, McCann said.

The remaining creatures in the den hopefully don’t inhale too much vapor, but that’s another question that has not been investigated in Texas.

(In other states, researchers have found gas injections into snake dens have sickened or killed collateral species — rodents and other reptiles, including the gopher tortoise, an ICUN-designated “vulnerable to extinction” species that does not live in Texas. Wildlife managers refer to gassing, like some kinds of trapping, as an “indiscriminate form of take.”)

If the snakes were to make it through the few weeks following their capture, they might later die of respiratory infections from the fumes. The Jaycees say most snakes don’t inhale enough benzene- and toluene-infused gasoline to come down with such an illness. But this is yet another black box; we don’t know whether the dose is lethal because the doomed creatures don’t survive long enough to prove it.

The snakes instead meet their fate at the World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, a festival where the snakes are rendered and plied as raw material in a global kitsch trade.

After they are wrangled from their dens, the rattlesnakes are transported to the roundup in wooden crates a few feet long and wide and several inches tall. McCann’s crate is painted the brilliant red of the Jaycee uniform vest. It bears a safety latch and swings open upward from the ground, exposing a skull and crossbones to warn anyone who sees it they are in danger. If you see the emblem, McCann said, you could be bitten.

Western diamondback rattlesnakes spill from Rob McCann’s crate to the concrete floor of the Jaycee Barn, the group’s facility in Sweetwater, Texas. These snakes are here as objects of a safety demonstration for regional high school students, Feb. 29.

From the crates, the snakes are dumped in barrels for temporary keeping and are later shaken from these barrels to the concrete floor of plywood pits that dot the venue, the Nolan County Coliseum. They’re viewed by spectators at each station. They’re milked for venom at one station, measured and weighed at another.

Jaycees say the venom was for a time sold to medical researchers and antivenom manufacturers, though most of these actors disavow the roundups.

The snakes meet their demise one of two ways. The first type of death is in the “skinning pit,” where patrons pay a fee to skin a freshly beheaded rattlesnake. These customers use the blood as finger paint on a large plasterboard display, planting their handprints and signing their names.

The second way the rattlesnakes die is at the hands of Randall Briggs of Paris, Texas, who said he buys most snakes leftover from the skinning pit.

Briggs, who wears overalls, a trucker cap, and a ZZ Top beard, could be described as a literal snake oil salesman. Each part of the snakes’ bodies is processed as meat, a curio, or Eastern medicine. Briggs and his team alchemize the fat into muscle salves. These products are shipped around the country and overseas via various channels, not unlike black-market items made from endangered creatures in exotic places, like pangolins or elephants. The difference is, this is perfectly legal.

In the middle of the gruesome procession at the roundup is a pit the Jaycees call “research,” where snakes are measured from snout to vent — or SVL, the length of the body from the nose to the cloaca, a cavity near the tail that houses sex organs and excretory parts. The longest snake ever measured was 81 inches. The sex and weight are recorded.

The first apparent fact of the roundup is there are a lot of snakes. The Nolan County Coliseum is a rodeo venue. So many animals writhe in it during the roundup that the entire stadium smells faintly of snake urine and shit.

In 2016, the Jaycees paid a premium bounty for rattlesnakes, resulting in a record take of western diamondbacks — about 12 tons or by my extrapolation up to 18,000 snakes. This is an order of magnitude better than normal.

Or worse. The Jaycees were unprepared for this amount of slithering bulk product. They had to mortgage their facility, the Jaycee Barn, to honor their promised fee. It was something of a face-palm moment, McCann told me, noting they have since reduced the bounty and capped the amount of rattlesnake they purchase annually.

The average take is less than one-fifth the 2016 total, at between 2,000 and 4,500 pounds. In 2019, the most recent count available on the Jaycees website, the take totaled 4,295 pounds.

In the research pit, crucial demographic information — the provenance of individual snakes as well as the actual number of animals dispatched at the roundup — is not taken down. Relying on verbal communication, Jaycees — along with roundup organizers in other small communities across Texas — say most snakes come from within a small radius, maybe 100 miles, of the hosting town.

I was not able to attend a snake hunt, but some anecdotes support this. Some snake hunters catch their snakes in backyard dens.

McCann said when he hunts, he is careful not to “kill a den,” meaning retrieve every snake. (In the northern parts of West Texas, Western diamondbacks return to the same dens each fall when they’re about to enter their winter torpor.)

Like deer hunters who jealously protect their hunting spots from others who might encroach, snake hunters keep a list of dens they only share with close friends so as not to spoil a gem.

They want snakes to remain because they win prize money on the roundup circuit with them. If it’s not a full-blown vocation for them, it’s at least a central source of beer money.

‘[T]hey’re secretive, cryptic, camouflaged, and they have a flight response.’ — Paul Crump, TPWD herpetologist

Jackie Bibby, an addiction counselor who has performed snake stunts at rattlesnake roundups for half a century, told me there may be slight local fluctuations in rattlesnake populations, but those are not statistically significant.

(Bibby does not perform at Sweetwater, which markets itself as an “educational” roundup that eschews flashy antics like letting dozens of rattlesnakes crawl inside a sleeping bag with you, which Bibby is famous for.)

Paul Crump, a herpetologist with TPWD, said the agency doesn’t have access to good data that would confirm snake populations are minimally impacted. But, he said, such a dynamic is possible. He said rattlesnakes fit into the category of wildlife that allows for certain levels of exploitation without dwindling.

Western diamondbacks reach sexual maturity at three years of age and have healthy broods every fall of between eight and 10. They can live two decades.

“If the number of new snakes being produced was equal to the number of snakes that were harvested, then a population would have the ability of persistence,” Crump said. But, he moderated, “There would have to be a sweet spot.”

I have thought about this sweet spot and find it a stretch of credulity that in the full absence of oversight on how many rattlesnakes bounty hunters annually remove from the wild that the number always — or even regularly — falls within that range.

David Sager, a longtime Jaycee and one of the roundup’s most outspoken defenders, told me the Jaycees do not want to disclose the origins of snakes. He said the agency once asked for global positioning data on each snake sold to the event, but the Jaycees wouldn’t yield the information. They knew their bounty hunters would balk at a state requirement to expose their best snake holes, Sager said.

There is anecdotal evidence that some snakes come from much farther away than the 100-mile radius.

Western diamondback rattlesnakes hide in the corner of a pit at the World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup.

One of the most prominent snake hunters, Eric Timaeus, often wins the “longest snake” contest. According to the New York Times, he can do this because he travels the ranches of South Texas, hundreds of miles from Sweetwater, to procure his take.

Timaeus does not gas dens; in South Texas snakes do not bromate, meaning they are never in dens to be gassed. They feed year-round, making them much larger than their brethren in North Texas, up to 8 feet. (This probably accounts for Timaeus’s collection of longest snake trophies.)

Roundup supporters and Jaycees have an answer to whether roundups affect rattlesnake populations: By removing the number of snakes they do from the environment, they keep the population at sustainable but thinned numbers.

Dennis Cumbie, a long-time Jaycee who was on a working group commissioned by TPWD to study a proposal to ban gassing noted in an appendix to the group’s report that only a tiny percentage of land in Texas is hunted for western diamondbacks.

The roundup has been held since 1959. The take has fluctuated but over a decades-long period has remained stable, which of itself suggests the roundup is not reducing snake populations. Yet, the bounty hunters do not participate in scientific population studies with TPWD, so there’s no way to be sure of this.

Texas A&M researchers Clark E. Adams and John K. Thomas argue in their 2006 book about roundups, Texas Rattlesnake Roundups, that western diamondbacks are seen in Texas culture as “a commons,” which in ecology is a resource that is open to free exploitation by anyone who wants to take part. Such resources can become overtaxed and unstable because ever more people are exploiting it. They write:

In the past, the response of European settlers in North America to wildlife abundance led to the outright extinction of some species (e.g., passenger pigeon) and regional losses of other species (e.g., white-tailed deer, elk, black bear, wild turkey, and many species of waterfowl were drastically reduced across large areas of the East and Midwest in North America).

These species were unlike the western diamondback in that we know they dwindled. But, Adams and Clark note, the lack of data on snake populations could catch us flatfooted:

Rattlesnake populations have never been monitored in a scientifically reliable manner, and quantitative data are still not available on the densities and population dynamics of the western diamondbacked rattlesnake population in Texas. Further, although required in the Texas Administrative Code, Chapter 65 Wildlife, reports on the actual number of rattlesnakes harvested by nongame permit holders are not complete or accurate and have not been analyzed by TPWD personnel; consequently, the actual numbers of rattlesnakes harvested cannot be determined for roundups and other commercial activities.

Rattlesnake roundups are themselves an endangered species. Bibby told me that when he started performing, there were more than 40 roundups in Texas; now there are fewer than 10. He attributed this decline to shifting social mores newly conscious of animal welfare.

But the Sweetwater event will probably never go away unless the Jaycees are forced to close it.

As troubling as some find the practice of rattlesnake roundups, a deeper problem underlies it. We lack an historical baseline for analyzing the populations of some wildlife.

This constricted perspective results in what scientists call “shifting baseline syndrome” (SBS), an ailment of perception. The condition occurs when an institution like the Jaycees or an individual biologist, snake hunter, or average Joe enters an altered place and has faith that its condition is the same as it has always been.

James Dineen writes in Undark: “Research on shifting baseline … suggests it could be pervasive for scientists and regular citizens alike, according to a 2018 review published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Despite historical declines in biodiversity and ecosystem health, people tended to assume that the natural environment of their childhood was how things had always been.”

Researchers plumb whatever resources they can think of to overcome this.

They interpret Egyptian hieroglyphs to recreate the original range of the hippopotamus, Dineen writes, and they rifle through ancient Chinese documents to discover apes used to populate the East. Local naturalists and nature writers constantly pour through the writings of Thoreau for insight on what Walden Pond was like way back when.

I have personal experience with shifting baseline syndrome. When it’s not closed because of a pandemic, I sometimes visit a college campus near my apartment, which is mostly soccer fields, open “prairie,” and new forest. Wildlife, including several species of prairie grasses thrive there. In the borders of the City of Dallas, it seems a relatively pure natural place.

But when I started researching the ground, I found most of it has been engineered. The hills that pock the campus are made of construction dirt, churned up in the dredging of the campus lake and the razing of ground for building foundations.

There are all kinds of wild animals that wouldn’t be there if not for the presence of humans, like the Canada geese that took up residence about a decade ago when they would normally migrate or the catfish TPWD stocks in it.

Bison that once aerated the soil are long gone. The prairie is no longer prairie. The current state of the campus is a shifted — shifting — baseline.

I searched library and government archives, JSTOR, college records, and the memories of college employees who’d worked there since its 1972 opening. There was no full sense of what once was on this specific, limited property of about 250 acres on the north edge of Dallas. Any biologist who wants a taste of what this plot was like in its virgin state must consult historical records and blurry aerial photographs taken over the course of decades.

There is probably a place like this in your life.

Most of Texas is like this. Less than 1 percent of the Blackland Prairie ecoregion of which the campus is a part retains the vegetation that existed before Europeans came here.

West Texas is likewise retailored. The region is a jigsaw puzzle of ranchland and oil patch, more than 95 percent of it privately owned. The succeeding owners have profoundly altered the ecology by running cattle and scarring it with service roads. There’s a general sense among naturalists that virgin land in the state is infinitesimal.

(In truth, no ecosystem in the world is untouched by human behavior. Recently, deep sea divers discovered plastic on the floor of the Marianas Trench, the deepest place in Earth’s oceans. But Texas, which is home to the scarred Permian Basin, home to a jarring decades-long boom-bust petroleum drilling cycle, is one of the world’s most transformed landscapes.)

So it’s easy to imagine that West Texans are victims of SBS.

But SBS is not the only problem with our perception of rattlesnakes. Lore that casts them manifestations of the Devil and their nature as creatures that do not want to be counted makes it even more difficult.

“When you go on a walk in the woods, you see zero to maybe 1 percent of the snakes that exist in the particular patch of habitat,” Crump said. “There’s this fundamental challenge because they’re secretive, cryptic, camouflaged, and they have a flight response. They want to get away from humans.”

Crump said it’s possible to evaluate snake populations in the same ways scientists evaluate other species — go out in their environment and count them.

“But it’s very expensive, and it’s extremely time consuming, and the methods that we use, you know, traps or walking surveys, road cruising, they all have their little biases in ways that could be an imperfect answer,” he said.

The state has not allocated the resources to conduct such a survey, so regulators cannot back up any regulatory proposals with solid data. In this perverse way, the western diamondback’s perceived ubiquity in Texas is its worst misfortune.

Full disclosure: I am training for my certification as a Texas Master Naturalist, a program sponsored by Texas Parks & Wildlife and Texas A&M Agrilife. No one I interviewed for this piece has any direct role in that certification.

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Aaron Hedge

Aaron Hedge

I like to write about human-wildlife relationships, mostly.