By Richard Conniff
Here’s an entertaining outdoorsy idea for springtime in Texas: Fill a garden sprayer with gasoline, and go around spraying the fumes into the cracks, crevices, sinkholes, and caves where rattlesnakes make their dens. Do it early in March, when the snakes are just drowsily waking up from their winter hibernation and too helpless to defend themselves.
Then as the snakes escape to the surface to flee the noxious fumes, pick them up, toss them in a sack, and bring them to the “world’s largest rattlesnake roundup,” held on March 8 and 9 in Sweetwater, Texas. It’s billed by the Sweetwater Jaycees as “fun for the entire family” and a major fund-raising event for local civic groups.
If, on the other hand, gassing semiconscious rattlers sounds like a barbaric vestige from our own cave-dwelling days, you may want to drop in on the Jan. 23 meeting of the State Parks and Wildlife Department in Austin. Commissioners are likely to ban the use of gasoline or other noxious chemicals to dislodge wildlife (with the obvious exception that you’ll still be able to spray pesticides on wasps in the yard or on crops). Texas will thus join 29 other states that already outlaw gassing.
The vote comes at the culmination of a yearlong round of research and public hearings on rattler gassing, which state officials say kills about 40 percent of the rattlers collected (and perhaps others that remain underground). It is likely to meet vocal objection mainly from residents of Sweetwater, a town of 10,600 about three hours west of Fort Worth.
“Last time I heard, rattlesnakes were not an endangered species,” Sweetwater Mayor Greg Wortham recently thundered to a reporter from the Star-Telegram. “People in Austin don’t understand. We’ve got to protect our families, ranchers, people who work in oil fields, on wind turbine sites.” (Fatalities from rattlers or any other venomous snakes are extremely rare in the United States.) Blaming out-of-staters for the proposed ban, Wortham added, “If they love [the snakes\ so much, I might just start a rattlesnake relocation program and send a box full to Massachusetts.”
In fact, much of the objection to gassing has come from other Texans. Because there are no longer enough rattlers in Sweetwater to meet the city’s roundup quota of several thousand snakes, collectors tend to work throughout the region. The gasoline they spray inevitably finds its way through the porous karst, or limestone, and into groundwater, which, as the Houston Press drily noted, is “bad news for anyone or anything—especially out in West Texas—who, you know, likes to drink water.”
Gassing is also bad news for other karst wildlife, according to a state analysis. Studies have found “dramatic and obvious” effects, from “short-term impairment to death,” in multiple species of snakes, lizards, toads, and other vertebrates living in and around the rattler denning sites. The gassing is also a threat to the many karst invertebrates listed as endangered or threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among them the Comal Springs riffle beetle, the Bone Cave harvestman, and the Government Canyon Bat Cave spider.
The state report notes that, as those names suggest, “some are known only from single sites, making them some of the most geographically limited organisms in the world.” In theory, one overzealous collector with a can of gas could push an entire species into extinction.
The proposed gassing ban is not a referendum on the colorful Texas tradition of snake roundups. When state herpetologist Andy Gluesenkamp surveyed the eight or so active roundups, he said, organizers of all except Sweetwater’s told him they’d already abandoned gassing. Sponsors of the “World Championship Rattlesnake Races” in San Patricio, for example, “were absolutely horrified that anybody would gas snakes,” Gluesenkamp told me. “They said, ‘You can’t race ’em if you gas ’em.’ ” Like other roundups, that festival relies in part on rented snakes for many events.
At most roundups, Gluesenkamp said, the rattlesnakes are essentially the marquee item to attract people to a weekend of music, food, flea markets, and other events. That’s not to say they lack distinctive Texas flavor. Jackie Bibby, “the Texas Snake Man,” is a standard feature. He arrives in a white hearse and performs in a clear plastic bath that assistants gradually fill with rattlesnakes. His Guinness World Records include 195 snakes in the bath and, separately, 13 in his mouth. “I don’t necessarily approve of sticking a dozen snakes in your mouth,” said Gluesenkamp, “but it’s not impacting the rattler population.”
The roundup in Taylor features an event in which contestants lie in sleeping bags while assistants stuff them with rattlers. Bibby holds the records there too—109 snakes when he’s lying the usual way in the bag, and 24 lying headfirst.
Other rattlesnake events in Texas and other states have gradually moved toward public education about snakes. This year, said Gluesenkamp, a group of snake lovers is organizing an alternative event the same weekend as the gassing in Sweetwater. The Texas Rattlesnake Festival will take place in Round Rock, four hours down the road, to celebrate rattlers and other snakes.
Well before then, the vote to ban gassing will take place at a meeting at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department headquarters in Austin on Jan. 23 at 9 a.m. Gluesenkamp is optimistic about the outcome. But commissioners still need to hear public support for the proposed ban on gassing. (You can let the commissioners know how you feel, through 5 p.m. Central time on Jan. 22, at this website for public comment.)
“The need to stop this,” one worried Texas herpetologist told me, “is as obvious as the fact that evolution ceased being a theory ages ago and the earth is older than 6,000 years. So you can see what a difficult problem this could be in Texas.”