Degenerated Science Part 3
How the "Scientific Council" determines a decline in rattlesnakes and other species
They count carcasses. They look behind them on their Museum shelves and literally count the bodies in bottles. If there are a lot of bodies, then that species is abundant. If there are few bodies, then that species is worthy of "Special Concern."
Here is how the eastern smooth green snake (Opheodrys vernalis vernalis) found its way into Special Concern:
I am quoting from the "Scientific Council’s" 1988 recommendations. The absurdity of protecting a species of "uncertain occurrence" will be apparent to anyone. But it gets even more ridiculous when you look closer: How are we to protect a species we cannot even find, and which, if we did find, only a herpetologist could properly identify? For behold this irony: the fact of a herpetologist having identified the animal would insure two things: (1) that the snake was at that moment either dead or in captivity (where he or the collector had placed it; hence, it was not being "protected"); and (2) that it would next be killed and made a preserved specimen to be taken away by the herpetologist as evidence of the species existence in the state. In other words, protection would cease the moment it was identified and became "scientifically valuable."
So much for protecting a "fringe dweller" like the Opheodrys vernalis. . . Its destiny as a Museum specimen is assured. As for the ordinary person, he cannot be coerced into obeying a law he doesn’t know about, for a snake he cannot identify. It’s just another "green snake" to him. Using the logic of bottle-counting, "Scientific Council" members have managed to put more than a dozen other "odd ball" creatures under a protected banner, flattering themselves the while that they were "saving a species." But self-delusion can have its perks: it looks good on your resume when it is your name beside the recommendation.
If "count the bottles" is one way, then "spin the bottle" is another. The rest of their recommendations might have been chosen at random. For while the fringe dwellers are "protected" because they are rare or of "uncertain occurrence" (they may be perfectly common in neighboring states) the southern hognose snake is being protected simply because it has become fashionable to do so on the Federal circuit. Here is what the "Scientific Council" has to say about the "decline" of Heterodon simus:
Note the deceptive wording: It has "apparently undergone serious declines and may be extinct in Alabama". The citation to Gibbons (1996) is meant to fill us with panic. And Gibbons himself (2000, Herpetologist's League Newsletter) attempts to add to the panic by warning us that southern hognose snakes have not been seen in Alabama for more than 18 years! This sounds frankly terrible until you realize (from a recent survey in Edgren, 2001) that only two southern hognose snakes were ever reported in Alabama prior to 1950! Thus like Opheodrys vernalis in N.C., Heterodon simus had a very restricted range in Alabama to begin with: another "fringe dweller". But its scarcity is magnified by the pathological scientists to paint a picture of dramatic decline.
More deception: Note how the writer attempts to trick us with numbers, in order to give the impression that the populations are waning in N.C. as well:
First, we don’t know who the "reporters" are or how they compiled their data (if any). Second, "since 1980" an interval of 18 years has elapsed since the time of their report, while "since 1990" only 8 years have elapsed. Naturally, there would be fewer reports of these snakes over a period less than half as long. But if you read the above passage quickly and didn't ponder over it, you would think just what they wanted you to think: There are less reports, therefore the snakes are declining. Next they tell us the snake was once "fairly common in the Wilmington area." Indeed so—when I was a child I caught dozens of them in my own neighborhood. What they don't mention is that 20 years ago Wilmington was a country town: today it is a sprawling urban-suburban complex that has swallowed up an entire county. Every herptile in Wilmington has met the same doom, not just hognose snakes. Where is the correlation for a statewide decline?
Turning from the harmless, to the venomous, we have the timber rattlesnake. This case offers us a classic example of a deliberate (and obvious) attempt to misuse the ESA. Submitted for Special Concern by Jeffrey Beane, the justification he and his associates provided was a clear and willful attempt to subvert natural history to the private designs of the Protectionists. Playing on the ecological constraints of the northern United States as though they were applicable to the ecologically dissimilar south, they attempted to fool us. Brown’s (1993) hypothesis for a hypothesized decline occurring in the northern United States was simply imposed verbatim upon the south. In place of a study conducted in N.C., the "Scientific Council" duped North Carolinians with a facsimile of the same material that Brown and his cohorts had prepared for New York State nearly two decades ago. Here is the Beane recommendation (not a study), almost word for word lifted from Brown (1993):
All this is nearly the exact wording of Brown (1993, 1994) and related works of the Brown team (Martin and Stechert). The parroting Beane, in his zeal to superimpose Brown’s fabrication upon the south, has forgotten (or deliberately avoided) an abiding rule of herpetology: that climate is fundamental to the life-history of all ectotherms, and their lives are ruled accordingly. Rather like blaming a reduction of alligators in Louisiana on a cold spell having occurred in Virginia. The southern biota is essentially different from the northern, and Jeff Beane and the "Scientific Council" cannot change that with mere mimicry. Factually:
One thing is true, however: the timber rattlesnake does require large wilderness tracts—and fortunately, such tracts still exist in abundance in N.C. (their changing character, however, is investigated in a further section).
But none of this really matters. NCWRC weren’t reading the Council’s reports anymore than they were reading mine. They were only acting in knee-jerk response to what they were told, and agreeing with anything that would advance their own power base.
Are timber rattlesnakes endangered in North Carolina?
The eastern diamondback never really had a future (or even much of a past) in North Carolina. But the future of the adaptable timber rattlesnake is not so grim. Although the timber rattler has been effectively eradicated in much of the Piedmont due to agriculture, development and the enormous number of asphalt roads linking all these biological catastrophes together, it would be hard to say that this splendid snake has suffered much in many other portions of the state.
Within the National Parks, forests, and gamelands throughout the western part of the state, C. horridus should be no less plentiful now than it was a century ago. But how plentiful is plentiful?
Because no survey has been done in North Carolina (the "Scientific Council" does not bother us with such details), we can attempt only the most ballpark estimate here. By looking for comparable figures in surveys made in other states we can perhaps arrive at an idea of what a "healthy" population should, or could be.
Some clues can be found in Martin (1992). In this study performed in nearby Shenandoah, Virginia, C. horridus was found to be quite numerous. There were said to be 115 hibernacula, with spacing of 1.68 km for 99 dens, with total populations in the 10 largest dens estimated to comprise 120–200 snakes. Populations of most dens were believed to range from 30 to 60 specimens. But this estimate represents only the numbers in dens, and not dispersed. It also represents only those dens that were discovered. Only the wildest intuitive estimate can fill in the blanks.
The reader should beware, however, that a "snake-den" is not quite what the word "den" conjures in the mind. It is not a den in the sense of a "cave filled with snakes". It is not possible for a man to enter such a den (as Daniel did among the lions), or to pour a can of gasoline down into a hole leading into one and flush out all the snakes. A snake den is nothing more than an immense pile of rocks or ledges between which narrow passage ways (literally cracks) reach into the ground to a level beneath the frost line. There may be thousands of such ledges and these may involve an entire cliff face, or a whole mountainside. "Wintering area" might be a better word than "den", for just where one "den" leaves off and another begins seems to be indeterminable. And some "wintering areas" may be more than a mile long, and several hundred feet wide. A "wintering area" is simply any kind of opening beneath rocks allowing snakes to retreat beneath the frost line. In the north, at least, these areas usually face in a southerly direction so as to have continual exposure to sunshine (overgrowth is said to make them unsuitable).
There is no mass emergence of snakes, rather a gradual trickle. The emergence, according to Brown, (1993) takes about three weeks, and occurs but once a year, only in the spring. Some, but by no means all, of the emerging snakes, can be counted if you are willing to maintain the entire three week vigil at the site. But you will never know for sure if you have succeeded in counting correctly. Moreover, the size of the site, and the inconstancy of the emergence occurring in position sometimes hundreds (even thousands) of feet apart, will require the observer to be divided into multiples. While to be in all the wintering sites of any given region at once during any given year is impossible, even within a single wintering area, if that area is large, you may need to be stationed at dozens of observation posts at the same time, otherwise, you can never observe the whole emergence. And the only proof that one has even found such an area at all is the presence of the snakes themselves: without the snakes there to reveal the area, a den site is just another pile of rocks. The emergence must be timed favorably with your own chance appearance.
All this is clearly impossible for a single man to accomplish. Martin (in Brown, 1993) admits that he is unable to actually count more than 15 percent of the snakes that are in dens (or might be in dens) and that his estimations must be arrived at "intuitively". Brown says that no more than 25 percent can be counted, and again credits his success to "intuition". Indeed, logic tells us just how "intuitive" this process really is—for if one can't count more than 25 percent of the population of any wintering site, then the census taker has about a 75 percent chance of being wrong! Moreover, without ever having been able to count all the snakes the first time, a base line for that den can never be arrived at. And bear in mind we are talking only about a single "wintering area" here, and there may be hundreds or even thousands of such areas in the N.C. mountains.
Be that as it may, using Martin's (1992) bizarrely "intuitive" estimates, it seems safe to say that a goodly number of timber rattlesnakes can be found in the right habitat. Using the parsimonious figure of 50 individuals/sq mi of "good" habitat, I believe there can be no fewer than 40,000 timber rattlesnakes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone, including young of the year (a very conservative estimate based on 800 sq mi of park and five reproductively active females capable of producing > 50–80 off-spring per sq mi). While this is a very rough number, in fact it is most certainly an underestimation. It does not to imply that all females will in all years be reproductively active: it only asks that five out of each square mile will be, each year. A square mile being 640 acres, this allows but a single fecund female example to each ca. 13 acres.
To persons unfamiliar with snake populations, 50 rattlesnakes/sq mi can seem like a lot of rattlesnakes. It isn't. A square mile of unspoiled habitat is big, and in such an area the chance of spotting even one snake is nil. Indeed, finding a single snake in an area even one-fifth of a sq mi (13 acres) is practically an impossibility. With a reproductive ratio of 10 offspring to one female, 50 /sq mi is then highly parsimonious. Judging from numbers in Martin (1992), in some regions the populations may exceed 200 snakes/sq mile. If 25 percent of these 200 are reproductively active females, these will produce more than 500 young of the year.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is only one small part of the sparsely inhabited Appalachian chain, which covers well over 10,000 sq mi in North Carolina. Within an area this large even a hundred herpetologists working day and night for several decades could not begin to find and count all the rattlesnakes (no matter what their "intuition"), and more snakes would be born as their work progressed. We have the Pisgah National Forest, the Cherokee National Forest, the Nantahala National Forest, and others. How logging in these areas may have affected habitat (and thus populations), we have no idea (and this deserves our full attention); and yet it seems safe to say that there must be at least 100,000 C. horridus extant in our North Carolina mountains, give or take young of the year. This far outnumbers populations of black bear—a managed game animal for which you can apply for a permit to hunt. It also exceeds or rivals the human population in some parts of these regions. So when I start hearing broadcasts from a "Scientific Council" recommending that the timber rattlesnake be classified as "Special Concern" in North Carolina with a possible future upgrading to "Endangered," I begin to wonder which planet they are talking about.
Depending on the numbers of dens you find, or individual examples you chance upon, you could construe a "decline" simply from a poor encounter rate. Reinert (1992) blames the "the observational limitations imposed by chance encounter" as having colored our views of timber rattlesnake habitat. We must acknowledge that for every one snake that is seen, it's a safe bet that there are many, perhaps hundreds of others, that are not seen. And to make counting timber rattlesnakes more complicated, the greater portion (about 75%) do not den en masse in N.C., but individually in small refugia. After all, only about 25% of the timber rattlesnake's overall range in N.C., and in the greater U.S., involves mountainous habitat. However much the Extinction Prophets argue that so-called shrinking den populations equals declining snake populations there will always be this disparity to haunt them: the timber rattlesnake is not ecologically reliant on communal dens in the greater portion of its range.
The greater populations of these snakes would not appear to winter communally, but among the root systems of large trees or other subterranean passages, including animal burrows, as they do in North Carolina’s Coastal Plain and throughout most of the south. In other words, most wintering locations are dispersed—and dispersed to such an extent that finding them is practically impossible short of individually excavating the passages. Only by employing pathological science can we infer on the basis of some den populations reduced from years previous, an overall decrease in all populations of timber rattlers in this southern state. But since no studies have been done in this state (no reduction has been determined!), to base our conclusions on the "intuition" of scientists in states in a northern latitude 500 miles away, is not merely incautious, it is absurd.
Shrinking den populations may be significant of a decline in some localities (and obviously these communal dens areas are the very localities where most studies take place: their reliability has put them on the biologist’s map) or it may result from other factors, but ultimately the disintegration of a particular den site is of little significance overall if the majority of snakes are simply not using large communal dens, and hibernating singly or in small numbers. Because these dispersed wintering sites are not on the biologist’s map, they go unremarked by the biologists, whose studies depend on being able to reliably locate the sites (not the snakes) from year to year.
Discounting temporality, the rate of encounter depends on three factors: (1) populations of snakes exceeding a certain number as to make some (usually a small percentage) visible; (2) visibility of the particular example within the habitat (3) chance. Counting snakes is so hazy a business, and the difficulty of finding snakes is so great, that herpetologists cannot be sure there even is a population of a given species, and must base their remarks on the reports of local informants gathered over many years.
The majority of all present distribution records for snakes in North Carolina were obtained in just this way: through years of patience. The contributions of people like William Palmer, who devoted his life to gathering these sorts of records from individuals more actively involved in field collection (such as George Tregembo and family of Tote-em-in Zoo, who have given us more field data than anybody) are what tell us what species live in North Carolina and where they are found. This has nothing to do with field trip "surveys" whose results are so opportunistic and conditional as to be meaningless in the final analysis.
Thus, when a "Scientific Council" springs up one day and starts shouting, "Decline! Decline!" as a scientist I am a little offended. What has taken a man like Bill Palmer a lifetime of patient effort to determine, his junior, Alvin Braswell, has accomplished in comparative minutes. This Fast Food Science is the method of the "Scientific Council." Assuming first, on almost no evidence, that there is a decline in NC, then ignoring all the myriad other possible causes for that "decline" (e.g., artifacts of sampling, dispersal to new refugia, periods of excessive cold weather resulting in increased winter mortality, developmental pressure including road building, roadway mortality, hydrologic alterations, alterations in phototaxis [causing snakes to seek out new basking sites and new hibernacula], competition in the food chain, logging [including removing hibernacula], and the natural cycles of decline which do periodically occur), only a mind-set fixated on a particular pet peeve could find a way to blame it on snake-catchers.
As W. B. Allen (1990), notes, in a personal communication to Brown (1993).
Yet the pathological science of Brown (1993), unable to recognize or admit that the "decline" he preaches may be nothing more than an artifact of his sampling abilities, finds a way to invert this distinctly different argument into a fabrication supporting his own bias, and, concludes, in complete contradiction to the source he has quoted, that such over-growth has been "good for the snakes" in that it "may discourage snake hunters from entering such areas and incidentally help protect some rattlesnake dens from humans"!
This is wanting to believe in something very badly—almost a desperation. Brown never misses an opportunity to expound his own personal obsessions about snake hunters, even if he has to use distortion. And this is the mental composition of the "Scientific Council": a pathological desperation to believe anything that serves their cause, and to distort what does not until it meets their own agendas. Because the science of their mentors, Brown (1993) and Brown et al., (1994) is so diseased of its own, I have had to prepare a separate paper to "treat" its sickness, too vast to be dealt with here. (See Degenerated Science 2: The Great Northeast Hoax; in press.)
Today there is no doubt much less habitat than there once was for timber rattlesnakes and all snakes in North Carolina. Emphatically, then, all snakes are in decline. But has the timber rattlesnake suffered any more than its fellows?
The timber rattlesnake is one of our larger native snakes, reaching a length of over 5 feet in N.C., and a weight (in exceptional examples) of over 5 lbs. Because it is not as large as the eastern diamondback, it has survived in northern climes that the diamondback cannot; smaller, it can squeeze into smaller refuges to escape the cold winters. The larger eastern diamondback (reaching a weight of over 10 lbs) needs larger hibernacula. Lacking a gopher tortoise burrow or other animal burrow, it can make use of a "stump-hole" involving tree roots, but this requires a tree to have reached a large size and a subterranean access into its root channels. When the big trees are felled and their stumps uprooted, and the ground plowed for pine farming, the diamondback has no place to winter and is exterminated. Hence the presence of the gopher tortoise has made the diamondback more common in south Georgia and Florida, despite pine farming, than in nearby South Carolina which has both pine farming, a colder winter and few gopher tortoises.
The lowland timber rattlesnake, or "canebrake" is larger than the montane timber rattlesnake because it inhabits a more southerly (warmer) clime. Having a longer season to feed, it can get bigger. But the trade-off of large size is that it has fewer places to hibernate: there are no rocky inclines in the lowlands of the southeast, and the root systems of large trees offer the only winter refuge. Hence the canebrake rattlesnake extends only as far north as southern Virginia, whereas the smaller timber rattlesnake reaches nearly to Canada.
If the communal den activities of some mountain populations of C. horridus give us a means to count some snakes, the canebrake rattlesnake gives us no such opportunity. In the Coastal Plains (the greater portion of their Carolina range), these snakes can only be found individually or at best in small numbers. There is little or no communality during the wintering period, since only individual tree root systems are available to them and these cannot support many individuals. In the Coastal Plains, where there is little elevation variation, a square mile means a "smaller" habitat but it also means a much longer active season for the snakes, almost nine months out of the year. Here the populations remain almost entirely dispersed, even in winter. This dispersal factor makes it absolutely impossible to count or collect these snakes even in the limited way that is possible in the mountains (one cannot look for dens) and the collector finds them by mere accident—and such accidents do not happen very often.
However, the lowland C. horridus still shows itself to be numerous due to frequent road kills and sporadic human encounters, where they turn up in people's backyards. In southeastern North Carolina the greatest populations are in Brunswick County (especially near the Sunny Point military terminal, which preserves some of the last standing maritime forests in the region), Pender, and Onslow counties. They are still encountered in Columbus, Robeson, Bladen, Duplin, and Sampson counties. They occur in most rural areas in the eastern part of the state, and range fairly far north, even into southeastern Virginia. In New Hanover county (where I have lived 43 years) they have been mostly exterminated by rampant development, although a population still exists in the northernmost extremity of the county near the northeastern Cape Fear River (an area now destined for a new superhighway). As recently as a few years ago, I could find them within five miles of downtown Wilmington, a city with a population of over 150,000 people.
Because of even greater area, and using the parsimonious "50 examples/sq mi" in appropriate habitat (requiring only five reproductively active females, each of which will produce more than 10 young, totaling > 50 young of the year), the whole of eastern North Carolina must certainly surpass the ballpark 40,000 figure I have given for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, since there is, at present, far more than 800 sq mi of appropriate habitat. An earlier breeding age in eastern North Carolina, with females reproducing as early as age 3 years, with up to 20 offspring from large females, makes these snakes more prolific than those in the western part of the state (pers. observation; pers. communication, J. Brewer). (Compare to New York State, where reproductive age is not reached before 7 to 9 years, with a smaller litter size of 6 - 10 young; Brown, 1993; Greene, 1997). Hence the widely remarked "late reproductive age" of timber rattlesnakes, as is used in USFWS propaganda to justify the low recovery rate in the wild, is only pertinent in the northern ranges of these snakes. In the U.S. overall, the "canebrake" form alone, which occupies no fewer than 11 southern states, must number not less than a million individuals. This does not seem like an endangered animal to me.
Reinert (1992) considers the timber rattlesnake a widespread and fairly common species in its very large range throughout the U.S. But the publicity people at USFWS and their love child CITES, mouthing the words of pathological science, want us to believe that a roaring pet and skin trade is depleting them en masse. Yet they can never tell us the numbers of the animals taken. With a budget of $6,000,000 to chase Tom Crutchfield all over the world, you would think that USFWS would have an exact figure at their fingertips. Far from it—their publicity people do not even know how many timber rattlesnakes were exported from the U.S. last year and I have had to invoke the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in order to get the Office of Management (OMA) to find out. (I am still waiting for their figure). In the meantime, the best they can do is warn us about a "billion dollar a year pet industry," which, after all, just rivals their own budget. By all estimates this billion dollar a year industry must be in pet supplies and not snakes, as I shall show.
And so we have a snake which bandwagoneers are preaching to be at the edge of extinction, and which people keep right on finding, running over with their cars, and getting bit by. And timber rattlesnakes are not in such decline that they have ceased biting people. Far from it. In a recent incident involving C. horridus, a Brunswick County man was bitten, not in the woods or fields, but inside a mobile home that he was repairing! He inserted his hand into a heat duct, and was promptly envenomed. The trailer had sat empty for a few months and the snake had apparently entered the heat ducts from outside. A very severe case, it ended in several hundred thousand dollars in medical expenses and eventual amputation of the major part of the limb (pers. communication, Drs. Marburg and associates, who treated the bite). In another severe bite a woman was bitten and had the profound bad luck to enjoy two flat tires in route to the hospital. She died, not from the bite but from a reaction to the antivenom—her heirs sued the doctors and hospital for malpractice and were awarded a large settlement. Most bites however, do not make the newspapers. After all, timber rattlesnake bite has been going on in this part of the south for several hundred years by now. We are the most "snake-bit" state in the nation!
At this stage, what biologists ought to be asking (and what state governments ought to be asking) is not how many rattlesnakes there were in Colonial times (this era can never be repeated), but how many rattlesnakes are enough for the modern day. To increase numbers of rattlesnakes will in direct proportion increase the number of snakebites—this is not specious. If we want rattlesnakes to be as abundant as in former times we must be willing to offer them a place to live. They cannot coexist with human beings—human beings won't tolerate it, and no law can change that. If we are not willing to give these snakes a place to live, then the most powerful ESA cannot help them.
Elevating the timber rattlesnake to the status of "Special Concern" in North Carolina is bizarre for a number of reasons. One usually begins state-listing animals because they are in danger of dying out. Before an animal dies out, it becomes rare. But the timber rattlesnake is not the least bit rare in the existing habitat. Short of destroying its habitat, the most deliberate effort to exterminate it could not possibly succeed. And man has been trying to do just that for over 200 years! Declining, yes—what wild animal isn't? Humanity expands, and snakes have had to make way. But to state that the timber rattler in particular is declining is to ignore a less pleasant certainty: the habitat of all species of snakes is shrinking at a rate unprecedented in American history. Even the once abundant cottonmouths and water snakes are at an all time low (the high visibility of these snakes, and their habit of gathering along the edges of streams, makes this easier to determine than for rattlesnakes). The reasons for this "decline" owe almost nothing to individual human persecution and everything to the changing character of our world: developmental expansion, pine farming and agriculture, draining of wetlands, and the poisoning of rivers and streams with fecal wastes and toxic chemicals (killing fish and amphibians). The laws being proposed will not correct these problems. Indeed, these laws appear designed specifically to overlook them (see further sections).
So, with all this in mind, exactly why are timber rattlesnakes now being considered for a kind of protection that cannot possibly help them? I have reviewed the political agenda motivating our "Scientific Council" and its explicit timing with the growing pains of CITES and USFWS. The "Scientific Council" seems to have been merely waiting in the wings as special signatories to federal plans: in their zeal to "protect" everything, they would have signed anything that was put in front of them. But there is one other factor I have not mentioned and it might better be classified as a sentimental motive than as a self-aggrandizing one.
Rebel fangs, rebel venom
As the populations of timber rattlesnake in some northern states revealed their susceptibility to rampant development, and to counter-act the effects of a decades' long bounty paid on dead rattlesnakes by numerous county governments, state laws to "protect" rattlesnakes were necessary to stop local governments from killing them. Meanwhile, northern biologists discovered a new side-effect to the age of conservation: there was money to be made in studying endangered species.
Endangered species offered the biggest share of the funding pie. Funding was available to study "endangered" species, but almost none was available to study common ones. You could get a healthy grant to study species that were "disappearing": but non-endangered species were second-class citizens. While the endangered species (and their attendant scientists) got waved to the front of the line, common species (and the human studiers of common species) were moved to the last. What limited money that was available would always go to the so-called "declining fauna": they needed it most. Thus was put the CON in conservation: the more endangered species, the more money for scientists.
Endangerment had to be exaggerated when it was small, and invented when it did not exist. Otherwise, the scientist would starve, his studies founder. Not only was it an impressive addendum to your credentials to have your recommendation for protection accepted, if you were also the main authority on that animal, any money that came by the hatch would sooner or later trickle down to you.
There were nuances to this game. The grant process worked two ways: you could get a grant to find out why a species might be endangered and should be listed; or you could get a grant to determine if a species had "recovered" and should be taken off the list. So long as "The List" remained central to the spiel, your work stood a chance of being funded. ("A Recovered Species" usually meant that previous researchers had merely over-estimated the species "decline", but that was for the scientists to know and you to find out. A "success" could always be credited to the protection law itself.)
It was only a "white lie". The scientists were completely justified: all species were in decline, few more than any other: the whole natural world was dying at the same rate, in direct proportion to human expansion. Knowing this, the scientists didn't feel bad about lying. They were doing some good. The only real "lie" happened during the rating system: which species deserved protection and which not. To have come out and said all were endangered and deserved protection would have been the worst thing the scientist could do. It would have made endangerment passé. It removed the scientist's own necessary discretion, and undermined his own importance as authority and judge. An authority is an authority only in so far as he knows something the rest of the people don't. He must be able to lean back calmly among his books and papers and say, "I have the data!" He may never reveal that data but that is unimportant: you are quite sure you couldn't understand it and even so you just know you would be bored stiff reading it.
So endangerment had to be juggled in order to play the "listing game." The "listing game" requires "listers". And listers get money to make lists. Even if all species were in decline, some had to be more in decline than others. Those species were the stuff that grants are made of. In the north, four friends (Brown, Stechert, Harwig, and Martin) got together and wrote themselves some nice tickets at the public's expense. They perpetrated a hoax about how they had surveyed hundreds of rattlesnake dens in each northern state (impossible given the time constraints of one den per each spring season: it would have taken hundreds of years), fabricated an "intuitive method" to answer all doubters, and wrote a treatise (called a "conservation manual") against their few enemies (the two or three commercial collectors who alone knew that the scientists were liars). Each backed up the other's story about the "decline" in timber rattlesnakes, which just happened to be the species they were studying at the time. All got grants or other funding to study the snakes because of it. Some still exist on these monies. Stechert, who got the ball rolling originally, apparently still makes his living riding the roads of New York State crying out "Poachers! Poachers!" the minute he fears state funding slipping, then ducks back into the woods to chase shadows. (See the sequel to this article: Degenerated Science 2: The Great Northeast Hoax.)
We southerners are often the last to catch on. Ten years after hair-styles went long in the north, we southerners were still wearing ours short. When hair-styles went short in the north, we southerners were just getting used to our long hair. A redneck could have short hair, or long hair, depending in which decade you lived. We are always years behind everybody else. The Protection Racket was no exception. We didn't realize our potential.
As the Protection Racket enveloped the north, and laws against collecting reptiles spread from state to state, suddenly North Carolina found itself in an unusual position: it was the nearest southern point for a northern snake collector to come and legally catch snakes. The Yankee snake collectors, their wild-caught supply cut off in their own states, were coming down here to steal our southern wildlife! The anti-commercial traders on the "Scientific Council" resented this, and an NCWRC anxious to give their North Carolina Nongame department something more to do than answer the telephone, were themselves motivated to make what had always been legal, illegal. The emphasis became to put restrictions on the commercially "desirable" snakes. What wasn't desirable (e.g., cottonmouths) didn't concern them. What might be desirable (e.g., red phase pigmy rattlesnakes) became a cause of concern. Like children who don't care about their old worn-out toys until they find out some other kid covets them, N.C. Museum personnel hopped to attention.
It may sound ridiculous that an ESA ruling was invoked merely to stop snake carpet-baggers, but this is exactly what got it started. In the beginning, the Protection Racket in N.C. had no more lofty a goal. We simply didn't know how much money we were throwing away from being too ignorant of the northern trends, and too laid back to implement them. But we were sensitive enough to get mad about Yankee invaders. Alvin Braswell had lived in N.C. a long time, and even though his state-paid morals kept him safely removed from an understanding of commercial trade, he knew as well as the rest of us that there just wasn't much trade going on in N.C. native snakes within our own borders. If native snakes were being caught at all in any number, they were being taken out of the state by the Yankees. Always pays to keep The Enemy far away, that way he cannot be identified. A Cold War always needs a Wall to keep things mysterious behind enemy lines. An unseen enemy is always the most ferocious.
Braswell's method was merely an extension of the method used by Brown and Stechert in New York State: make the decline relative to the animal populations of colonial times (you would always be proved right), and have an actor (e.g. Rudy Komarek) who so enjoyed the fame he got from it, that he was willing to be made the public bad guy or scapegoat. So long as Komarek lurked in the bushes, Brown and Stechert were safe. But in N.C. we had no Komarek to depend on, no scapegoats, willing or unwilling. We had to look to the north, to those damn Yankees we already hated since the Civil War. If the Brown method would work in the north, it would work in the south. And so far it has.
And yet most North Carolinians would agree that the Yankees are welcome to all the rattlers they can take. One newspaper editorial (the Pulitzer prize winning Washington Daily News) covering this controversy suggested that we should not only let the Yankees have our snakes, but put them on the state payroll as well!
But if the rebel rancor is so stirred by thoughts of sneaking carpetbaggers stealing our fangs and venom, why does it not occur to these Confederate patriots in the "Scientific Council" to simply charge a fee to these out-of-state collectors, with a "bag limit" on amount of take. This is exactly how other "game" is managed—why is that not being done with snakes? Answer: (1) it would require legal wrangling more difficult and unusual than merely state-listing the animals. "Protecting" a species is a standardized process; you merely add a new name to a pre-existing form proposal (do this year after year and soon you will have got them all); and (2) it would control the situation without imposing a complete ban.
The "Scientific Council" does not want to control the situation. They want to keep the problem going—as an issue—in order to satisfy their own objective of imposing a complete ban. As Preservationists, not Conservationists, they will settle for nothing less than to shut down all hobbyist interaction. They made this abundantly clear with the 1998 proposal. And so fanatically single-minded is this goal that they are willing to risk the life and limb of a fair number of human North Carolinians in order to see it achieved!
And so the pigmy rattlesnake—which God knows is coveted by every northern man and woman alike—is now also to become worthy of our "Special Concern." Not to protect the snakes from North Carolinians, who could care less about them; but to stop the carpetbagging Yankees from stealing them. It is the old case of using the ESA for a covert objective. A biological issue subverted to a political agenda.
How to get into the pigmy rattlesnake business
It is a fact that out of state collectors do (or did) travel to northeastern North Carolina to look for the red-colored form of Sistrurus miliarius. They have been doing it since the 1960s. But they must be very skilled collectors indeed to be able to pick out from among the incredibly dense forest debris these tiny snakes of less than 20 inches length that can coil up in a space smaller than a single large oak leaf. That they manage to do it without the aid of tractors and plows to rip up the wire grass growth and underground places where the snakes live makes their skill all the more remarkable. They must be very skilled collectors, with better eyes than the hawks and owls that feed on them, to do damage to populations encompassing better than 10,000 sq mi.
And how many pigmy rattlers can we ballpark-guess to inhabit a square mile? To suggest less than 50 (10 reproductively active females equaling < 50 offspring) would make the rate of encounter so low as make finding so small a snake completely impossible. Lest we be accused of "rigging the game," however, we will use an even lower figure of 10 individuals/sq mi (granting that in some favorable habitat there may be 100 or even 1000). This should satisfy all doubters. Thus in 10,000 sq mi of habitat there should not be fewer than 100,000 pigmy rattlesnakes in the sparsely developed rural counties of Martin, Beaufort, Washington, Tyrrell, Dare, Hyde and other nearby counties from which the "desirable" red phase snake emanates. That's a lot of rattlesnakes and genetic diversity. The more so considering that it is completely renewable from year to year, so long as habitat remains. But this is just the "red phase." Given a fairly large range for these snakes in North Carolina (well over 30,000 sq mi) we should not be surprised if pigmy rattlesnakes exceed 200,000 or even a million individuals in North Carolina.
How many pigmies are sold each year in the U.S.? "Glades Herp," the world's largest venomous snake dealer, reported to me that they sold only 20 last year. All these, however, they had reproduced in captivity themselves. They considered this a "good market," and were willing to buy some from me if I could get them, at a wholesale price of $100 each (provided my specimens were legally obtained). They would then retail these snakes at $300, noting however that it would take several months to sell them. They could not buy more than about 10 at a time.
So there is a market, however restricted. And the price is relatively high for a North Carolina snake (at least if you're the world's largest dealer and have the cachet to sell them). The problem for Glade's Herp was not demand (sales), but supply, that is, acquiring them. This indicates that either (1) pigmies are so hard to find people are unable to supply them; (2) wild collection is unprofitable (because difficult and time-consuming) and not done very much; (3) the present law (requiring a special permit) is working and few people are collecting them because of that, i.e., the pigmies are not being impacted; or (4) that sales generated by Glades Herp are sales generated by Glades Herp (they have an established clientele to which they can move the product) and other collectors cannot find an equivalent market.
Lest one jump into the business of breeding (or hunting) pigmy rattlesnakes thinking it offers lucrative opportunities, the reader should first beware of a few things.
Market saturation is always a danger in any collector's trade, from coins to postage stamps, and the venomous snake market is the most limited of all herp markets. Even the larger harmless snake markets are at the mercy of supply and demand. The greater the supply, the lower the price; for the urgency to sell live perishables is considerable (one doesn't simply store them up in warehouses and wait until the price comes back up). The albino Burmese python is a good example. During the first year these snakes became available, they were valued at over $3000. After the third year, when more people began breeding them, this price fell to $1500. After the fourth year they could be bought for $500. At the present time the price is in the $20–40 range: an all time low from which it will never again be resurrected, for breeding these snakes is rather easier than breeding poodles. Many people who got into the albino Burmese python business with intent to make money soon found out the truth about the "lucrative snake breeding business." They lost their shirts.
Compared to the non-venomous snake market, the venomous snake market is exceedingly small. There are no more than 1000 fanciers of venomous snakes in the entire continental U.S. (I have most of their names in my Rolodex, the product of years of accumulation). Of these, only a small number are strictly "rattlesnake" enthusiasts. The business is characterized, as are most hobbies, by the emotional phases of the participants. Fads rule the day. This year one species (or color phase) is a hot item, the next it is another. Collectors are often young people, who will get out of the hobby after a few years (or months) once the newness wears off. Of the true "serious" private collectors, who will continue with the hobby for more than five years, the number is much smaller, perhaps 150 persons. Most all collectors will get in and out of the hobby several times during the course of their lives, and it is here that the dealer makes his best buys, with the hobbyist who has loss interest selling out for whatever trivial money he can get.
Once the market for a particular species is saturated, the price must drop drastically before any further trade can be conducted. A newly available "legal" red pigmy rattlesnake worth $200 in the first year may be worth half that amount in the second year. If the snakes remain available, by the third year the price will divide yet again. Captive breeding will drive the price down even further. This is another way the reptile dealer makes his money: by buying surplus animals cheap from breeders who don't have the connections to find buyers themselves. In fact, the whole key to being able to sell any snake is in knowing who wants what at the right time. The most expensive snake in the world is worthless if you don't know who to sell it to. Because the animal is perishable, the dealer must be able to double his money or better to cover possible losses. Hence, to sell a retail $200 snake to Glades Herp, the seller must be willing to accept about half the retail amount (about $100) or even less, but then only provided it is feeding and in top shape. But if there is already a big supply, the seller will have to content himself with whatever amount he can get. In this perilously insecure market, a snake on Monday may be worth a fraction of what you paid on Friday. Captive born specimens, because they are already acclimated, always enjoy precedence in any negotiations.
Nor can you expect to always receive money for your transactions. Perhaps half of all "sales" of snakes to the big dealers are not for cash, but for "trade value" on another reptile. In fact, a great deal of the snake hobby is simple bartering, and no money is exchanged. If $200 is the average price between collectors (always lower than the dealer price), and there are 200 people who will buy them over the course of a year, what is the total world dollars value in all saleable pigmy rattlesnakes in the first year? $40,000. Less than Randal Wilson's salary. It seem ironic that he gets paid more to keep you from having pigmies than the total value of the pigmies you yourself could sell if he were to suddenly give that many snakes to you; but remember the worth of his office (as state-paid snake-price regulator) is not gauged according to the worth of a single species, but by the total number of species he can "protect." And by "protecting" them, he enhances their dollar value, in turn inspiring demand. Just as his job security is predicated on numbers of state-listed animals (the more the better), the smart breeder of wildlife will always gravitate toward protected or species in limited supply. If you are in the business of breeding pigmy rattlesnakes out of state, you will not hate but love the North Carolina Nongame Office. Randal Wilson will be your best friend. Glades Herp could not get the money they are currently getting for red pigmies without Randal (or someone like Randal) willing to shout "decline, decline!" at the drop of a bandwagoneer's hat.
Thus the only reason the red pigmy has reached its present dollar value is that the supply is low, i.e., they are illegal to obtain from the wild without special permit. If pigmies were legal to collect, they would flood the small existent market and revert to the price they held for some 30 years prior to the existence of the law: less than $25. Hence the regulation against collecting them only succeeded in doing one thing: increasing their desirability and driving the price higher. Dealers refer to this as "artificial rarity." A snake becomes rare simply because it is "protected," and reaches an abnormally high price in spite of being a common snake in the wild (e.g., Australian herpetofauna). Truly rare herpetofauna (e.g., snakes like bushmasters) are valuable even though no laws exist to protect them. Predictably, the total dollar value on the world market of the 200 saleable pigmy rattlesnakes after a period of two years legalized collection, would likely drop down to a paltry $5000, as opposed to the present $40,000 on the same number of snakes. Poor Randal Wilson if this should happen! Collectors would lose interest in the pigmies and his office would have one less reason to exist! So the smart snake breeder avoids breeding "artificially rare" species and sticks to truly rare species, since he is apt to end up losing money if the laws should suddenly change, or continued availability despite the laws (and encouraged by the laws) means that more people are collecting them illegally and/or captive breeding them.
If Randal Wilson wanted to end the "desirability" of the red phase pigmy rattlesnake, he need do nothing more than let 100 be legally obtainable by the public on an annual basis for about two years. After this the "craze" would be over, the luster gone, and captive breeding would have supplanted wild collection to such an extent that he needn't fear so many Yankee invaders he can't control anyway. But then what would Randal Wilson have to do all day if he couldn't arrest people? Randal Wilson needs "endangerment," real or imagined, whose desirability has been artificially enhanced in order to justify his office. A vicious cycle.
But here's the rub—for years now the pigmy cannot be collected in North Carolina without a state permit, and the state doesn't issue them except to Alvin Braswell and special friends (see further sections). So if Randal Wilson thinks there is still a problem with illegal collection, why does he think yet another law on top of the present one will control the problem? How many "pigmy poachers" did his office catch in the act last year? Answer: Three? Two? None? On what does he base his evidence that the species is still being "impacted" by over-collection? Answer: On the opinion of Alvin Braswell and the North Carolina Museum of Sciences. Indeed, Braswell and company ought to know. They were the major takers of pigmy rattlesnakes in the state of North Carolina last year, and for more than 10 years before (see further sections for documentation). Collectomania is not confined to hobbyists. It's always nice to be the only kid on the block. The higher the price tag, the nicer it feels, no matter if you are a breeder, or a museum worker who has carte blanche to catch all he can carry.
Will making diamondback rattlesnakes "endangered" in North Carolina increase populations of the remaining snakes? Hardly. They have been under "Special Concern" for over 10 years and Dave Davenport's "challenge for us to find them" was made only yesterday. Has "Special Concern" or "Threatened" status helped these or coral snakes so far? Obviously not, for now our State Guardians of Snakes feel the need to elevate these species to a yet "more secure" status. When a cure doesn't work, eventually you have to admit that it is better to start looking for another medicine—or doctor. This common sense logic works everywhere but in state government. Our state-paid quack physicians just keep piling on more and more bandages, allowing the real ulcer to keep growing underneath. And the real ulcer has nothing to do with pet collectors.
The northern pine snake (Pituophis m. melanoleucus) is another "Special Concern" species for which "protection" has simply done nothing whatsoever. Another fringe population in North Carolina, whatever their number was before (nobody knew), it can only be less now, since development has increased tenfold in the areas where it lives. The "Scientific Council" warns: "The northern pine snake may receive federal listing.... It is a highly desirable pet, and individuals sell for as much as $100...." Most CHS members who work with pine snakes will find these remarks humorous, at best, and I needn't go on. Glades Herp only sold 50 northern pine snakes all last year and 42 of them were captive born. None of them came from North Carolina. Probably a thousand times this number are killed on roads throughout the U.S. on any rainy night in their active season (see further sections).
Intending, as in all their reports, to instill panic of the roaring pet trade, the "Scientific Council" obviously has not the least idea what any snake is worth, how many hobbyists and dealers will buy them, and how many examples they could sell, given an endless supply.
We must really use our imagination on this next proposal listing: It is the southern hognose snake (Heterodon simus). In "Scientific Council"-speak, this secretive little toad-eater has somehow been pushed to the brink of extinction. In popular writings we learn that everything from loss of sandhill habitat to encroaching fire ants is slowly doing them in. The idea is so widely accepted that listing is now moving from state to state to "save" them (from God knows which menace herpetology can fabricate) with other state-paid Chicken Littles leading the way. Of course there is no proof of a decline. There's not even anyway to measure it. The snake is so secretive that only an incredulous imbecile or a shameless con man could even believe it was possible to determine such a thing. But that doesn't matter, it gives State Herpetologists excuses to do "studies" of snakes that are so cryptic that nobody can find them, their "evidence" surmised from roadway mortalities that are astounding considering that their own broadcasts tell us their populations are so few (see further sections). The "snakes in decline" hysteria spreads like the pathology it is, and the ravenous pet collectors ravaging our hills and streams get the blame for collecting a snake that would seem to have almost no resale value whatever (Glades Herp sold only two last year), and be impossible to hunt successfully, even so. No more the delight of local children, who catch these snakes in their backyards, play with them and then release them again (learning a friendliness toward snakes from their experience), now catching a hognose is to become a punishable offense. The kids (and their mothers and fathers) are henceforward to be branded as criminals for the possession of a snake that no commercial trader in his right mind would ever waste his time trying to sell.
No matter, it has satisfied the ego of some State Herpetologist somewhere who has shown how he can flex his muscular influence by putting yet another name on an already monstrously big list, another notch on his belt. "It will raise public awareness," Alvin Braswell says. "Really?" I reply. "There are over 175 mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes on the state protection list. Do you know what their names are? Could even a game warden properly tell you unless he had the list actually before him?" So much for elevated awareness. You can't be made aware of something you can't remember, on a list so long you can't be troubled to read it; and, moreover, on a list that changes names from year to year with the randomness of a floating crap game. Certainly you will never have that list in your hands at the critical time when a snake is lying in front of you on the roadbed; nor will Farmer Brown bother to consult such a tome when he goes to the barn to get his hoe.
Here is the mimic glass lizard (Ophisaurus mimicus), given Special Concern some years ago by the Braswell team. These animals were always rare as hen's teeth in North Carolina but so similar to the other common species, Ophisaurus ventralis, that almost nobody can tell them apart. How is the public's awareness raised about an animal they cannot identify?
We must ask ourselves: what are these laws accomplishing? If they are accomplishing nothing, do we need them? And do we need more such laws that achieve nothing?
The "Scientific Council's" proposal would have us imagine that a problem with "declining rattlesnake populations" can be linked to commercial trade. I do not buy this idea—not because commercial trade does not make use of these animals, but because it is irrational to think that this sort of "human predation" is significant enough to widely affect them. There just aren't enough people in the world who want to keep an animal that can easily kill them. Probably more rattlesnakes are killed by hawks and owls in a single day in North Carolina than the combined total human take of rattlesnakes in an entire year (I demonstrate the reality of this statement in a later section). The proliferation of hawks across the state in recent years directly corresponds with the so-called "reduced snake populations" the "Scientific Council" complains of. Compared to raptorial birds, the human taker is an incompetent bumbler whom, if his life depended on catching enough snakes to feed his own belly, would very soon die out as a species. The reason is simple: man's ability to find snakes is a hit or miss process.
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