Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Death Warrant for every Black Snake ----Guest Post---

Catch up by reading Part I here.

    As most field biologists can attest, spending extended time far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life provides countless and invaluable experiences. These experiences are not only with the objects of study, but also with the rural human society that calls our field sites home. While we often neglect interest in getting to know these locals, I would submit that the relationship between local human populations and the surrounding ecosystems may be among the most important relationships for successful conservation. For better or worse, this is the front line of conservation.

    Across the southeastern US, locals and landowners can determine whether efforts will be invested in restoration and management of tracts of land for conservation. Additionally, it is locals who can willingly (or unwillingly) and legally (or illegally) steer the direction of the best conservation measures, and in the end determine if these measures drive successful results. While it is true that large tracts of extremely important public lands exist across the US, if we are going to win the good fight for conservation, we must be successful on private lands. While public lands are important for conservation, the total area of public lands relative to private lands is very small; for example, only 3.8% of Alabama is publicly owned. We should not willingly give up on the other 96.2% of this state.

    I have sampled gopher tortoises across Alabama and one of the most unique experiences I have had was in southwestern Alabama, just north of the Mobile-Tensaw Rivers delta (a region that I’ll refer to as the delta). As if I weren’t excited enough to talk about field biology in the southeastern US, this region gets me totally geeked out. In the previous post, I described how longleaf pine ecosystems are a thing of great biogeographic serendipity. Add one more level of intrigue, and you have the delta region. Because of its positioning among some of the largest rivers of the southeast, the delta is characterized by expansive, slow-moving coastal rivers bordered by ancient cypress trees. In great juxtaposition, this region also boasts some of the highest and steepest topography along the Gulf Coast. Here, steep hardwood hillsides crawling with salamanders give way to sandy longleaf pine uplands. Standing on top of a delta sand ridge makes you feel as if you can see clear along the gulf from Florida to Mississippi, and all the way north to Tennessee. While this region is a thing of amazing beauty, it is also extremely isolated. The network of large rivers cutting in all directions has generally made this region less penetrable to modern infrastructure, such as bridges, that could efficiently connect this region to nearby cities (if interested in the more nefarious history of this region, you may like to read Hell at the Breech). Working in this region offers an added level of solitude in nature.

    Because the delta region is in the western distribution of the longleaf pine ecosystem, there are numerous organisms found here and not in the longleaf pine ecosystems further east. The black pine snake is one such species. It is a very large, heavy-bodied black snake. A snake that is quite similar in appearance to the Eastern Indigo Snake (click for more on Indigo Snakes in AL). The black pine snake is non-venomous and specializes in living in sandy longleaf pine ecosystems, and overlaps greatly with gopher tortoise habitats. This snake mainly consumes small mammals, and is only found in a very small portion of southwestern Alabama and southeastern Mississippi. As is the case for so many longleaf pine ecosystem specialists, the past several decades have been trouble for black pine snakes. Fire suppression, conversion of the landscape from longleaf pine forests to more economically expedient agricultural products, and overt killing of these animals has resulted in population fragmentation, and ultimately extirpation (i.e., the local extinction of populations). In sum, this has lead to a severe downward spiral for this species. As a result of this downward spiral, the black pine snake was recently listed as a threatened species on the Endangered Species List. Enter landowner freak-out phase.

    The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was signed into federal law in 1973 by President Nixon. The goal of ESA is “to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend” (FWS.gov). While this goal seems pretty straightforward- don’t let species go extinct- and non controversial, many people still fear ESA. The law, and its subsequent enforcement, has often been perceived as the heavy hand of the federal government restricting the liberties of a free people. And, while this is not the goal of the law, we are all likely aware of the pervasiveness that negative, and often wrong, sentiments have in spreading through society. And like that ancient delta cypress, these sentiments are often unshakable. One such area of commonly held misconceptions, and a very important component of ESA, is the designation of critical habitat. The designation of critical habitat provides a scientific and objective measure of the habitat that is most important for a listed species’ recovery and eventual delisting from ESA. As stated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), critical habitat “may require special management and protection”.  

    So I was in the delta region of Alabama, surrounded by black pine snake critical habitat, in longleaf pine uplands, studying gopher tortoises. One morning when I was heading out to begin my day in the field, I passed a local landowner. We exchanged pleasantries, I explained that I was in the area studying gophers, and our conversation quickly turned to the recent federal listing of the black pine snake. This landowner assured me that he would never kill a non-venomous snake, but he was quick to rat out his neighbors. As a result of the USFWS decision to list the black pine snake, he tells me the new mantra of the private landowners surrounding his property: “A death warrant for every black snake.” Enter biologist freak-out phase.

    Why? How could this be? This community exists in one of America’s crown jewels for biodiversity. A region that boasts spectacular natural riches. And here, these people have made a decision that out of an unjustified fear of legal recourse for finding a black pine snake found on their property, they will promptly kill any snake that even remotely resembles this declining icon of their region. But why such a fear of having a black pine snake on their property? It’s certainly not out of fear of the snake itself, as they have lived with “black snakes” on their properties for millennia. As I said earlier, ESA exists to save species from extinction. This is a goal that is still wildly popular in America and across all (well, at least most) political persuasions. This shared goal- again, don’t let species go extinct- is not the least bit controversial. In fact, this goal is likely even held by those who would deliberately kill the black pine snakes on their property. However, these landowners also fear what legal constraints may be imposed on them should this animal be found on their property. Specifically, this landowner assured me that if a black pine snake was found on his property, that neither he nor his neighbors would be permitted to continue timbering their properties, and that these lands would be held in a state of unusable limbo for the sake of snake conservation. Fortunately, this belief is simply wrong. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to convince someone that their beliefs, largely rooted in fear, are wrong.

    As a result of much fear and pushback by landowners and the forest products industry, the USFWS wrote specific exemptions into the black pine snake listing to avoid these exact conflicts. In their decision, the USFWS states that the presence of Black Pine Snakes would not prevent normal timbering operations (check out a statement from the USFWS on these exemptions). Moreover, (and without getting too off track in the details of ESA), under most situations, private landowners are only prevented from committing “direct take” on listed species. As in, they cannot deliberately kill, collect, harm, or harass a protected species, yet they can generally use their land as they would in the absence of the listed species.

    Knee-jerk reactions of fear that ultimately lead to persecution of threatened and endangered species are not unique to this experience. Talk to many conservation biologists, and you will likely hear stories of illegal, and just plain unethical, vigilantism aimed at preventing the discovery of protected species on private property. These situations are not limited to specific organisms, and are often as unique as the species that ESA protects. They range from bats and birds to lions and bears.

    So how do we combat these fears and prevent these losses? First, as in so much of science, the key to progress is education. And we are generally winning that battle. The messaging of conservation must be one rooted in conveying accurate details in a manner to lead folks away from the conspiracy theories about the federal government’s motives. Secondly, as Livingalongsidewildlife has been so successful at, we must advocate for species conservation in a manner that is not alienating those whose hearts and minds we seek to change. As stated earlier, most people generally appreciate biodiversity and don’t want species to go extinct. As advocates for conservation, we must develop and nourish beliefs about the positive value of biodiversity, and that personal interests do not have to conflict with a shared vision for good.

    Gopher tortoises are currently federally listed in the western portion of their distribution as threatened. They have been petitioned for federal listing throughout the remainder of their range, and the USFWS is soon expected to release a final ruling regarding this listing. With few exceptions, I am unaware of persecution of tortoise populations as a response to current or potential listing (although, I am not sure that those doing such actions would feel comfortable divulging their stories to me). I hope that regardless of the future legal decision, populations of tortoises will not be persecuted, although I fear this may not be the case. I hope to never hear again of a “death warrant” for every turtle or any other native species.


    The past decades have been rough for conservation. The present is scary, yet tremendous progress has been made. In the next post, I will discuss hope for the future.

Part III will appear tomorrow.

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