Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Rattlesnake Wranglers, Armed With Gasoline - via Herp Digest

By Manny Ferandez , SWEETWATER, Tex. 3/3-14— At the foot of a rocky cliff here, Riley Sawyers knelt down and peered into a small, dark hole, on the prowl for rattlesnakes. One had already lunged at him and bitten his Kevlar-reinforced boot. The venom was still drying, as was the blood on his arm from where the thorny terrain had scratched him, when Mr. Sawyers went to fetch the gasoline.
It was not for his dusty S.U.V. It was for the snakes.
To encourage the rattlesnakes to slither out, Mr. Sawyers and his nephew slipped a thin copper tube into the hole and hand-pumped gas fumes into it. In West Texas, as infested with western diamondback rattlesnakes as New York City is with rats, snake hunters like Mr. Sawyers have been using gas fumes to flush out their prey for decades.
The practice, known as gassing, has outraged animal rights activists and reptile researchers who say that spraying a toxic substance in wildlife habitats hurts the environment, the snakes, and other animals and insects that live underground or use the same burrows.
In recent months, the opponents of gassing have gained a powerful, unlikely ally: the State of Texas. The state’s wildlife agency is considering banning the use of gas fumes to capture rattlesnakes — a move that would add Texas to the list of more than two dozen states that have partly or completely outlawed the practice, including Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma, all of which share borders with Texas.
In a state that advertises its small government and has fought efforts to protect the dunes sagebrush lizard and other animals as endangered species, the agency’s involvement in snake wranglers’ affairs and its attempt to safeguard a creature that bites and frightens ranchers and others strikes some as anti-Texan. If the ban goes through, snake hunters noted, it will be illegal to use gas to chase out a rattlesnake, but legal to use it to catch a gopher.
The debate over the proposed ban has mushroomed into a larger, stranger battle that has attracted the attention of Gov. Rick Perry and other Republican leaders and underscored the cultural divisions between urban and rural Texas.
“A lot of people that’s bringing this to issue have never encountered a snake,” said Mr. Sawyers, 46, a state-licensed snake hunter, tile layer and Marlboro chain-smoker who has a cheerful quotation from Davy Crockett next to the snake tattoos on his arm: “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.” “If you’re into the Bible, snakes have intimidated people from the beginning, and I don’t think that’s changed to this day. If they were on your land, would you want restrictions on how we can get them off, or would you want them removed?”
In Houston and other cities, people have barely noticed the proposal to prohibit gassing. When the agency considering the ban, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, held hearings in Fort Worth and San Antonio, just 21 people attended. No one showed up at the one in Houston.
But the hearing in Sweetwater in January drew an estimated 250 people. This town of roughly Every March, Sweetwater puts on the country’s largest rattlesnake roundup. (A billboard on the highway into town claims it is the biggest in the world.) The snakes for the event are supplied by wranglers like Mr. Sawyers, the majority of whom use gassing to capture rattlesnakes in the rugged, dry terrain nearby. Hunters are paid by the pound; at this year’s roundup, they brought in hundreds of live western diamondbacks, totaling about 3,900 pounds. A ban would make it harder for hunters to collect a large number of snakes, and some believe the hunters would not bother to take part because there would be no financial incentive.
Town leaders and organizers of the roundup said a ban on gassing would end the roundup and its 56-year tradition, or shrink an event that pumps millions of dollars into the local economy every March as thousands of people travel to Sweetwater to shop, eat and visit. The Sweetwater Jaycees, the nonprofit group that organizes the roundup, use the proceeds to finance community projects, including feeding needy families on Thanksgiving, buying equipment for the fire department, and helping local students, Little League teams and disabled adults.
“It would be a devastating blow to us,” said David Sager, 63, a snake handler at the roundup and a member of the Jaycees. “The rattlesnake roundup is our ways and means.”
The good deeds that come from the roundup are preceded by rather gruesome ones at the event itself, where attendees and organizers celebrate, photograph, skin and eat the most widespread venomous snake in the state. The live diamondbacks are squeezed for their venom — a valuable commodity sold by the Jaycees — and then slaughtered, all in front of the men, women and children at the event. In their most recent report, from 2004, organizers estimated that from 1958 to 2003, the roundup handled 254,000 pounds of diamondbacks — enough dead reptiles to equal the weight of a small locomotive.
Though state wildlife officials have been examining the issue of gassing for years, the primary catalyst for the proposed ban was a petition sent to the agency last year signed by 57 zoologists and others, many from out of state. Some of those who signed the petition oppose not only gassing, but the roundup as well.
“The behavior that occurs at the traditional roundups is animal abuse,” said Kristen Leigh Wiley, curator of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo and one of those who signed the petition. “Just because it’s a rattlesnake and not any other animal does not mean that it cannot experience pain or suffering.”
Officials at the Parks and Wildlife Department said their goal was not to end roundups, but to protect the various species besides rattlesnakes that are exposed to the fumes. They pointed to a 1989 study that showed that a 30-minute vapor exposure impaired or killed seven species of snakes, lizards and toads. 
“I liken this to fishing with dynamite,” said John Davis, director of the department’s wildlife diversity program. “It’s about a means of take, a means of collection.”
Some lawmakers, led by state Representative Susan L. King, whose district includes Sweetwater, oppose the proposal and want more extensive field research. Snake hunters and residents said the amount of fumes used in holes and crevices was too insignificant to warrant a ban, and expressed fear that without the gassing and the roundup, the town would be overrun with diamondbacks — a claim that supporters of a ban deny.
Rattlesnakes are the creatures Sweetwater loves to hate.
At the roundup, young women compete for Miss Snake Charmer. This year’s winner of the fried rattlesnake-eating contest — Tonya Osteen, 39, a mother of three — has found diamondbacks on her porch, and one bit the neck of one of her dogs. “It just helps thin out the population,” said Ms. Osteen, whose teenage daughter skinned a snake at the roundup. “Somebody sitting there saying, ‘Oh, poor little snakes’ — I don’t want my kids getting bit by rattlesnakes. My three-legged dog, imagine him getting bit by a snake.”
Out at the rocky cliff a few miles outside town, Mr. Sawyers and his nephew Alex Newman hunted mostly without the gas sprayer — a red can similar to the kind used to spray weed killer on lawns. “You don’t go around shooting fumes in every hole,” said Mr. Sawyers, who has become rattlesnake royalty in Sweetwater as one of the stars of the Animal Planet reality show “Rattlesnake Republic.”
At the hole, they pumped fumes for less than a minute from a can that held about 50 cents’ worth of gas. No snakes emerged. Their only catch of the day was a three-foot diamondback that Mr. Newman, 32, grabbed with a pair of metal tongs.
Since the roundup had passed, Mr. Sawyers did not want to go to the trouble of selling one snake. Instead, he said, he planned to marinate it and then smoke it on a barbecue grill.

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