Wednesday 25 March 2020

Box turtle, rattlesnake collection would be outlawed under WV's proposed new regulation - via Herp Digest

By John McCoy Staff writer , West Virginia Gazette
Mar 21, 2020

A regulation proposed by West Virginia’s Division of Natural Resources would make it illegal for people to take home box turtles for pets. If approved, the regulation would go into effect in 2021.

The DNR’s proposed reptile-collection regulations would set a bag and possession limit of zero for timber rattlesnakes, although agency officials say provisions will be made for congregations of snake-handling churches. 

JOHN McCOY | Gazette-MailOne of West Virginia’s most-collected reptiles might soon become uncollectable.

State natural resources officials are considering a regulation that would make it illegal to pick up and take home a box turtle.

The regulation, which would go into effect next year if approved, would set a bag limit of zero for 17 reptile and amphibian species, including Eastern box turtles, timber rattlesnakes, Eastern hog-nosed snakes, smooth greensnakes, Northern rough greensnakes and red cornsnakes.

Kevin Oxenrider, a biologist with the Division of Natural Resources’ Natural Heritage section, said agency officials are aware that the proposed regulations for box turtles and timber rattlesnakes might be controversial.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Mountain State youngsters carry home box turtles each year to keep as pets. Congregations at snake-handling churches count on having rattlesnakes on hand during their services.

Oxenrider said provisions would be made for snake handlers, but not for people who pick up box turtles.

“We’ve been working closely with [the DNR’s] Law Enforcement Section to make sure we don’t infringe on people’s ability to worship with snakes if they choose to do so,” he explained. “We plan to work with the attorney general to make sure people have access to those animals for [snake-handling] purposes.”

He said a provision would be written into the regulation that would allow snake-handling congregants to collect rattlesnakes as long as they let the DNR know in advance they’d be doing it.

“In addition, people who study rattlesnakes for scientific purposes, or who need them on hand at educational facilities, could still request permission to collect them,” he said. “It also would be legal for landowners to kill rattlers that they consider a threat to the people who live on the property.”

Current regulations allow people to collect one timber rattler, which must measure at least 42 inches in length.

“The current size limit is to protect female rattlers, which don’t usually get that large,” Oxenrider said. “Taking out an adult female could have a significant impact on a local population. Female timber rattlers take seven years to mature, and they only reproduce once every 2 to 5 years.”

The no-take regulation, he added, would allow law enforcement officers to avoid the hazard of having to measure collected snakes to determine if they’re of legal size.

Timber rattlers — the official West Virginia state reptile, and the only rattlesnake species native to the state — have become increasingly scarce in recent years. DNR officials are currently working on two different studies to determine where rattlesnakes tend to live, and how to minimize contact between rattlers and humans.

Current state regulations allow people to possess up to four box turtles, but that would change under the new regulation. Again, Oxenrider said the no-take regulation is intended to slow an ongoing decline in box-turtle populations.

“Their numbers are down throughout their range in North America,” he added. “They’re particularly susceptible to illegal collecting for the pet trade. One man in Maryland was caught with more than 1,000 of them.”

Being able to take box turtles legally, Oxenrider said, creates opportunities for poachers, who could simply make the rounds of their associates, picking up four turtles at each stop.

There’s also a disease issue. Box turtles can carry ranavirus, a disease that can be fatal to reptiles and amphibians.

“We’ve had three die-off events from ranavirus here in the state,” Oxenrider explained. “Box turtles don’t have large home ranges. When you have 20 animals die in an area, it has a large impact on the local population.”

He said it isn’t unusual for a youngster vacationing in the Eastern Panhandle to find a box turtle and take it back home with them.
“That’s how diseases get spread,” he continued. “[Going to a no-take regulation] stinks, because kids are used to having that connection with box turtles. But it’s needed if we want box-turtle populations to persist in West Virginia.”

Oxenrider said the no-take rule will not be enforced against people who rescue box turtles they see crossing highways.

“We would allow for Good Samaritan acts,” he explained. “We would ask people to move turtles to the side of the highway, but not move them any farther than that. Moving them to the side of the road won’t spread ranavirus. Taking them home just might.”

The proposed regulations have been presented to members of the state Natural Resources Commission, who will vote on them at one of their quarterly meetings later this year.

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