Rattlesnake Roundups

Sometimes people imagine that if you like finding rattlesnakes, you’d love rattlesnake roundups. However, to quote Gershwin, “it ain’t necessarily so.” Most of us who would identify as naturalists or herpetologists have serious objections to what goes on in rattlesnake roundups.

An interest in, and a love for rattlesnakes does not equate to a fondness for seeing them collected in large numbers, taunted and tortured, and killed in front of cheering spectators. Imagine that killing most wild birds was legal – would birders want to go to an event where ducks, jays, woodpeckers, or owls were mistreated and killed? So why is it OK with rattlesnakes?

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Hundreds of rattlesnakes awaiting their fate at the Sweetwater roundup

For us (Clint and Michael), this is not just an issue about humane treatment. Our objections include the practice of “gassing” dens to collect rattlesnakes, as well as perpetuating an unnecessary fear and hatred for species of wildlife that play a positive role out in the wild.

If you are interested in the problems with rattlesnake roundups and the spraying of gasoline into Texas habitat, please download and read the issue of Texas Field Notes we produced in 2014, which was distributed at the first Texas Rattlesnake Festival (an anti-roundup event). There are articles written by Michael, statements about gassing from the Kentucky Reptile Zoo and Dr. Bryan Grieg Fry, and an excerpt from Manny Rubio’s book, Rattlesnake: Portrait of a Predator. (click here)

Michael wrote this back in 2013:

In the crazy world of the non-game wildlife trade, some hunters collect live rattlesnakes to be made into hatbands, trinkets, and other products. Many of these snakes come through the annual rattlesnake roundups where they endure cruelty and stupid daredevil tricks before being killed, skinned, and sold. And the collection of many of these snakes begins with the environmentally destructive practice of spraying gasoline into crevices and burrows to drive them out. We now have a chance to stop this toxic pollution of Texas’ habitats [at the time, there was a proposal to ban the gassing of snake dens, but Texas Parks & Wildlife Department – TPWD – pulled the proposal].W-diamond-1

You would think it would be illegal to spray a toxic, carcinogenic substance into places where various wildlife species take shelter and rain percolates down into groundwater, but you would be wrong. The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for gasoline states that “Intentional misuse by deliberately concentrating and inhaling gasoline can be harmful or fatal.” Benzene, one of the components of gasoline, is a human carcinogen. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates and in many cases prohibits use of waste disposal wells to collect oil and gas from car repairs, in order to protect drinking water, and so it seems crazy that we allow the intentional spraying of gasoline into the ground. Twenty-nine states, including all the states that border Texas, either partly or completely ban the use of gasoline to collect non-game wildlife. Texas, however, has continued to allow this practice.

About ten years ago, a Jaycee at the Sweetwater rattlesnake roundup told me that gasoline “don’t hurt nothin’, it just takes the oxygen out of the air so they got to come out to breathe.” He was clearly misinformed. As if the information in the MSDS above was not evidence enough, there are studies showing how gas exposure harms wildlife. Campbell, Formanowicz & Brodie, in a 1989 article in the Texas Journal of Science, experimentally exposed a number of species to gasoline fumes, and found that it was harmful to all species but more likely fatal to species other than rattlesnakes and especially toxic to amphibians and invertebrates. Toads and lizards exposed to gasoline fumes and tested seven days later were less able to catch prey. Therefore, animals surviving the initial exposure may die later because of impaired ability to catch food.

[In 2010], the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department began exploring citizen reactions to the idea of banning the use of gasoline in this way. Finally, [in 2013], a proposal was made to the Commissioners and a regulation was drafted. 

The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department asked for public comments on the gassing issue, and here are the results:

  • 10,137 people responded, 38.8% in-state and 54.8% from out of state
  • 9,312 of them AGREED with the proposed ban on gassing (91.9%)
  • 80.1% of in-state comments agreed with the proposal
  • Only 743 disagreed with all or part of the proposal (7.4%)

Nevertheless, state agencies are not directly ruled by the will of the people. Because of the blowback from a few places like the town of Sweetwater, where the roundup is a major part of who they are, TPWD formed a “Snake Harvest Working Group” to try to develop some consensus on the issue. The scientists and herpetologists on the working group stuck with the science, while the rattlesnake roundup faction stuck with their assertions, and predictably, no consensus was achieved. For now, TPWD has shelved the regulation that would ban gassing.