Degenerated Science Part 5
Big Scare, Wrong Monster
Thus far we have a scare without a clearly definable monster, and a band of protectors from that monster who, surviving on our money, threaten us with nameless fears in order to keep getting more of our money, and advance their own cause of power and control. We have an animal (the rattlesnake) that nobody is much interested in buying, threatened by nearly imaginary collectors whose menace is all around us and yet nowhere to be found. And we have the equally imagined accomplishments of the "protectors" who would have us believe, against all fact, that an "improvement" has occurred since they started protecting them. It is the old sucker game by which all such bureaucracies survive: a condition in which the protectors need us, while we clearly do not need them.
Like all parasitic organisms, our "protectors" can escape rejection only by escaping detection as parasites. To pull this off successfully, they must pretend they are an essential part of our "body". Insofar as they can appear necessary to our survival, their methods and directives will remain unquestioned. Yet they can't help giving themselves away eventually. For what is unique about nearly all parasites is that they must grow, and as they grow in size, their appetites grow with them. To insure that they will always have food for their growth, their job can never be completed, will require more funding from year to year, even as the laws (that insure their job security) must increase also. Thus in North Carolina, the endangered species list must continually be growing to keep up with the wildlife commission's own need for bureaucratic increase. Thronging inside of our governing "bodies", sapping our freedoms, they soon blow their cover from the sheer intensity of their hungers and become conspicuous in spite of themselves. "Feed us!" they cry. "Our office is too small!" And so meager are their resources for gaining our attentions these days, that they must reach down into the very bottom of the species bag and produce a mere rattlesnake for their new mascot. After all, there is almost nothing left they are not already "protecting" from the rest of us.
The methods by which parasitic bureaucracies establish their hold on human society are much the same everywhere, and have followed the same program through-out human history. Whether an African village plagued by juju priests who both plant the evil spells and cure them at a price; or an American state government whose workers invent a problem and then offer a fake cure that will keep them in jobs for generations, it is all the same strategy: convince the host that he cannot live without the parasite.
Within the present issue we can see this formula played out in miniature; a method characterized by five identifying characters insuring absolute success so long as it remains clandestine. The parasite must:
This last tactic is very important, as any good witch-hunter knows. For if one burns every witch, and an absolute relief from the threat of witchcraft is obtained, the services of the witch-hunter will no longer be required. Therefore, it is better to forestall the cure taking place as long as possible: no panic, no scapegoat, no job. Since the symbolic scapegoat is not actually "responsible" for the problem, attacking him into extirpation will not eliminate that problem—and this is so much the better, for the parasite must grow along with the problem. The parasite must do everything in its power to:
Like a vampire, take a little, leave a little, but always take more than you leave. That the victim’s death is inevitable is not mentioned in the program.
The vampire conspiracy is a conspiracy of ignorance. Self-deluding, they do not know that they are vampires. They do not know that they cost more to keep up than they give back. They do not even think of the public as their "victim." In fact, they believe they are conferring "good" upon those they visit for their blood. This makes it especially difficult to deal with them in a logical capacity, for to accuse them of complicity with a degenerating program (and all vampiric programs are degenerating, for they provide diminished returns for the effort expended), will be interpreted by them as a resentful insubordination to their vested authority, a form of anarchy to the particular "order" they believe they represent. That they do not represent order, but a form of veiled chaos, will never occur to them. They see themselves as the "best available option."
End of the Century Hysteria
The present conservation movement could not have arisen at any other time in human history without the coincident changing of the century and the present human population explosion: it is a creation of these two favorable events. The coincidental existence of a mass media willing to publicize it (for media too thrives on hysteria) gives the impression of a "problem" appearing in all parts of the globe simultaneously. Oriental sellers of snakes to the medicine and food markets of the far east, conducting business as they have for thousands of years, are suddenly being arrested as "smugglers"; with eerie simultaneity, similar arrests occur involving pet dealers in America; respected zoo men and herpetologists are being visited by the American version of Haiti's Tonton Macoutes: a USFWS answerable to no-one, not even the U.S. Constitution. Armed raids on pet owners compare with raids on crack houses; reptile "smugglers" (or buyers from "smugglers", even though they be unwitting dupes) are chased all over the world at costs of millions of dollars, then extradited, a treatment seldom afforded even to Nazi war criminals. It is happening everywhere in the world at once, as though orchestrated by a single hidden hand.
That hidden hand is neither more nor less than the hand of mass hysteria: the crowd panic, and the crowd acting from a sense of wild urgency and fear. An emotional eruption in response to the sheer overpopulation of human beings, it is characterized by that aspect of mindless flight that has marked all human hysterias at every hundred year mark since man first learned to make records of Time. The century turns, its wheel greased by that greatest of all human fears, the fear of the unknown.
The millennium was drawing to a close, and our end-of-the-world madness, nourished through the Atomic Age, had horror in reserve for whatever new mania presented itself when the Cold War went out of fashion, and left a psychological void of threats unknown although clearly anticipated with the advent of the 21st Century. For it is a fact that some men need fear as a lodestone in their lives—the threat of an Invisible Enemy can give some men's lives direction in a way that a visible plentitude never can. Committees spring up, looking for enemies to give meaning to their lives; men and woman without individualized direction, seeking a mob direction as a viable second course to thinking on their own.
Indeed, our fear, and our need to fear, was so great during the 1990s that we would have bought any idea, even the farfetched one that a common predator on vermin was at the edge of extinction in a landmass bigger than Europe, and in a combined habitat that is still, for all its fragmentation, still larger than many European countries. Chicken Little had darted outside his isolated little coop at the University, seen something in the sky that frightened him, and his outcry was all it took to rouse the lynch mob numbers against the demon they already knew was responsible, because he was so conspicuously different than they were. Thus when Mr Little’s representatives from Washington appeared at our doors with their hands out for money "to fight the enemy", we bought quickly their ideas without shopping around for a second opinion. This gave them the advantage of deception: and working in secret on special committees from which the public was barred, they soon found they could do as they liked. For the rest of us, there was no time to look at the matter closely: the world was going to end if we did not act now.
Gullible nature lovers, believing all that they read and heard uncritically because they saw it confirmed within their own asphalt life-styles—observing wildlife only through the rose colored lenses of staged television broadcasts of a Peaceable Kingdom that, unbeknownst to them, was filmed in the very captivity they despised—jumped in with the attack-ferocity of endangered motherhood, while the conservation scientists who answered to no one, not even logic, found themselves the elected priests of a nature to whom all mankind must bow down as God’s chosen interpreters. And they liked that plenty.
It was the end of the century and the Apocalypse was nigh. Child molesters were everywhere, and an expanding branch of psychology hypnotized our children into believing that their parents, relatives, teachers and friends had secretly fondled them in the unconscious epochs of their buried pasts. UFOs hovered over our houses, abducted us in our dreams, and for every kidnapped mind sucked into space there was a reptile abductor in the newspapers. The searching, the groping, the hoping, the buying into weird and worthless nostrums. . . all were symptomatic of the widespread panic. Conservation groups sprang up with the frequency of the Spiritualist movements of the last century, filling our mailboxes with requests for handouts that they might save the planet, but no one dared question these floating ghosts on strings: it was unpatriotic. There was panic, and there was money to be made preying on that panic—more money than was ever made in selling wildlife or wildlife parts. Some of these conservation groups actually accomplished something. The best of them, recognizing that it was the sheer masses of mankind, and not any individual membership, that was the real environmental threat, raised money to purchase land habitat, and this was sound thinking. But the worst of them, and by far the more common, catered to the lowest of human sentiments, and erected scapegoats in place of solutions, so that they might be paid to throw mud.
The latter found themselves nourished by State and Federal government agencies which bled our tax blood: state biologists sucking up grant money to "monitor" impossibly secretive animals like snakes and bats; game chiefs given greater arrest power and throwing their weight around accordingly; and at pet snake conventions attended largely by children, wildlife policemen strutting their big guns: "protecting us", apparently, from Dennis the Menace. Spearheaded by the massive police agencies whose hold on Washington is already greater than George Orwell could have ever dreamed possible, with scapegoat offenders more farfetched then any Yellow Peril, the hysteria caught on as hysterias always catch on: because there was money to be made in directing them. The Apocalypse came and went silently—but the directors of Apocalypse Control remained empowered.
Meanwhile, the real disease went on festering behind the bland faces of housewives and home owners, career people, housing developers, supermarket and golf course patrons, and most of all the builders of roads on which we drive our big American cars. That disease was nothing less than the American Dream itself.
Slaughter by the American Dream: Roadway deaths
Thus far this paper has concerned itself with what isn't the problem. In this next section, we take a look at the real illness.
The disease is near at hand; in fact, it is as close as our own car keys. For where do our environmentally dangerous pet collectors congregate to perform their environmental depredations? Answer: the roadbed. And this is where the logic of the Sci-Fi Council becomes most wildly degenerative: the animals that the our state wardens would begrudge us to own are being collected from rural highways before being run over by cars!
Which brings us to a sobering realization—one which we have all the time been aware of but have simply ignored because it was almost too terrible to consider—and moreover, a problem to which all persons, even PETA members and NCWRC personnel, are contributing as much as the next. For if PETA, USFWS and friends really cared about animals they would get rid of their cars and take up bicycling. The most significant killer of snakes and all wild animals upon the earth today is roadway death.
In a different class from developmental encroachment, which eradicates wildlife at once and forever, roadway death is a never ending process. In North Carolina, the roadway is a monster with 97,000 linear miles of tentacles that reach into every ecological system (enough asphalt to reach around the earth four times). Profiting from the natural movements of all wild fauna, and the accidental encounter of its slaughterhouse wheels, its gargantuan 24-hour, 365-day appetite make it the world's greatest predator. Frogs and toads are the most common victims, but among reptiles, it is the slow crawling turtles and snakes (whose elongation makes them unavoidable, if inadvertent targets) that are main prey. Many seek the elevated roadbed as a refuge from the rains; others try to warm themselves on the tar when the days are cool; probably most are only out roaming and foraging. All end up dead eventually, once reaching the "gallery forests" that line our roadsides. Advancing from less spoiled ecologies (or pressured to do so by advancing development and agriculture), they may adapt to roadside woods for a little while, but once crossing the white line, the chance of survival is small and if repeated, nil. To inhabit the roadside forest at all puts these beasts in that statistical gray area where being smashed to death seems inevitable. Picture a gigantic chopper-dicer into which nearly every beast that falls is given a unceremonial beheading; imagine every sort of habitat fragmented by this chopper until it becomes biologically deadened along its perimeters, and you have a fair construction of what the roadway means to wildlife. It is at once the greatest and yet most inconspicuous blight to living things upon the earth today. And it is a blight to which all persons contribute equally: the wildlife cop, the PETA member, the housewife, even the President of the United States. Indeed, it is a phenomenon to which the snake collector contributes least, for he is at least on the look-out to save the lives of animals that a less caring public unknowingly obliterates.
We can state unequivocally: The non-herptile-collecting public will in one day in the United States kill more herptiles while out driving their cars than the combined total of all herptile collectors in the United States will collect in their entire lifetimes.
To persons accustomed to blaming pet collectors for the ruination of the universe, this may seem a strong statement to make, but analysis will reveal that it is both logical and consistent with the available data. From other literature and my own efforts, I estimate a minimum of 100,000 roadway deaths of reptiles per week in North Carolina alone (based on 1.2 carcasses per mile/week multiplied by 97,000 linear miles of state maintained roads, during spring, summer and early fall periods; the 1.2 carcasses per mile figure is based on a suburban survey, expanded to include rural roads; it is therefore an extremely parsimonious rendering, for the roadway death figure on rural roads can jump to as many as 50 reptiles per linear mile per day and these grossly higher figures have not been included).
With frogs, toads and salamanders this figure can skyrocket to nearly 2,000,000 deaths per week (19 individuals per linear mile). As many as 500 freshly dead frogs and toads can be found per mile per week in some areas. Persons interested in investigating further the phenomena of road killed herptiles and other wildlife should consult the following references: Adams and Geis, 1983; Shine, 1991; Goodman et al., 1994; Rosen and Lowe, 1994; Fahrig et al., 1995; Fowle, 1996; Krivda, 1993; Means, 1997.
I quote from Fowle (1996):
That's 205 turtles of a single species killed in a four-month period along a mere 4.5-mile section of road (1.7 turtles killed per day over the 120-day period of the study). That figure does not include snakes, lizards, frogs, salamanders, or even other species of turtles.... Consider that there are 156 different species/subspecies of herptiles in North Carolina! But these figures are merely trivial compared to what goes on in a southern state. Biologist Jamie Barchivich of the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 10,000 leopard frogs can die on a single night on a stretch of 1.8 mile four-lane highway through the Paynes Prairie Wildlife Barrier Project near Gainesville, Florida, not including tree frogs and Florida brown snakes. My figure of 1.2 reptiles/mile killed per week (0.17 per day) to a total of 100,000 per week is then a highly conservative figure for North Carolina as a whole.
But if 100,000 reptiles per week seems like a lot, multiply it by their 26-week active period and you get an astounding 2,600,000 examples of all reptiles killed per year by automobiles! (Using an alternative 35-week active period = 3,500,000.) If even 1% of these are rattlesnakes you still have a phenomenal 26,000 rattlesnakes killed on roads each year in N.C. (or 13,000 at .5%).
Beane and Thorpe (1997; in Griswold, 2000) reported that road hunting of southern hognose snakes (Heterodon simus) was by far the most productive method of finding them. Of 208 specimens they and their researchers have encountered on roads since 1985 only 13 percent were alive. An amazing 87 percent were dead. Not a very good argument against people rescuing them from the road, or for making laws to protect them from pet hobbyists.
Figures like these make a "war against commercial trade" seem like the silly, scientifically "pathological" thing it is. The relative insignificance of the trade in North Carolina venomous snakes is not difficult to discover: I simply did as Berish (1998) did and contacted North Carolina reptile sellers, asking them how many they sold, and how much money they would pay for them. But the Scientific Council has not even troubled themselves to do that much, and no such survey exists. For the record, in 1998 I reported these findings to all 11 members of the "Scientific Council," with a lengthy critique of their ideas. To date I have not received a rebuttal, or a single reply from any of them. They simply were not interested in my data, or anyone else's.
Furthermore, I estimate that the total trade in all North Carolina reptiles and amphibians accounts for less than .01% of all herptiles that are removed from the wild by:
I place these in order of their statistical importance. However, it is conceivable that conditions 2 and 3 have actually replaced natural death and predation as the greatest overall killers. Indeed, a bizarre thought only tenable in a world ecology gone completely awry.
By comparison with these forces, deliberate persecution of snakes (and other animals) is of a level scarcely worth mentioning, since it is only rarely that man, snake, and the means to kill the snake, find themselves together at the same time. Owing to nature's good sense in enabling them to hide, snakes are just plain hard to find. If snakes were so easily exterminated by persecution, they would already have been so, for they have been under continual pressure by far more efficient predators than man since the dawn of evolution! An overwhelming 99.99% of all herptiles that do not die from natural causes are removed from the wild through: (1) death by habitat destruction and degradation (from development and pollution); and (2) death through being run over on our highways.
And there the matter rests. Given the data at our disposal, and with the scant number of people collecting herptiles in North Carolina, the sudden urgency to "protect snakes" from piecemeal collection is both irrational and overstated.
And yet if roadway mortality tells us nothing else, it puts into perspective at least what constitutes a significant harvest. Roadway mortality remains the best tool we have to determine what is or is not a significant human usage of reptiles, amphibians and other wildlife. Compared to roadway slaughter, the human usage of herptiles is so insignificant as to be not worth thinking about.
Reminiscence as demography
With the overwhelming majority of all reptiles being collected from our highways before being hit by cars, the degenerated science of the "Scientific Council" becomes most evident. And yet "road cruising" is the standard technology most herptile collectors use to find snakes (Kauffeld, 1957; pers. observation and pers. communication with 31 herpetologists and collectors who all use the "road cruising" method to collect herptiles). Those that are not collected from roadways are collected from near roadways, around human dwellings, under lumber, tin, and trash debris, where their proximity to roads makes them prime candidate for roadway death (pers. communication, J. Brewer, G. Tregembo, S. Seashole, C. Hiatt, 1997; and pers. observation for 30 years in North Carolina). The "Scientific Council" does not acknowledge these facts, although its Chairman, Alvin Braswell, must certainly be aware of them — for these are the methods he himself employs to collect reptiles for the Museum (pers. communication, Alvin Braswell, 1993–1998).
In fact, the "Scientific Council's" entirely anecdotal information about wild populations of reptiles in North Carolina tells us little more than what sort of animals State Museum personnel have found on the sides of roads, for this is primarily their own method of collection. Except in very limited localities, true wilderness demographics of herptiles in a state the size of North Carolina are outside the scope of what any one or even 100 researchers could do, and would require many years. When I asked Alvin Braswell how he determined that populations of spotted turtles had declined in a specific area (one of several areas which he lets stand as representative for the entire state), he responded, "We went riding on the road for two whole days last spring and we didn't see any." He concluded from this "that a certain Yankee he knew of had probably been down here raiding the area."
Perhaps so. And as likely (from this type of reasoning), there may have been other causes. What little data that has been provided by the Council seems based on this sort of "hit or miss, shooting from the hip" approach to demographic assessment. The "Scientific Council" points to certain localities where Museum collectors are accustomed to collect snakes and other herptiles, and because of not finding the numbers expected from previous ventures, have surmised an overall decline within the state. But this is a decline they cannot factually explain, based on an apparent lack they cannot truthfully determine. If the lack truthfully exists, it could result from numerous other ecological or temporal variables, not the least of which is their own skill at finding the animals. Not being able to explain it, they choose (i.e., fabricate, because they do not scientifically determine it) a causative agent of barely detectable intensity (the human persecutor/pet collector) as responsible, and pressure government officials to take action. Indeed, the laws that result can have no measurable effect because they do not control significant impacts.
The "Scientific Council" has not admitted the more likely cause of the "decline" of herptiles. Since their data results from nothing more than failed road hunting attempts, they have not admitted that the roadway itself as the major artifact of their sampling. The putative decline may be in itself nothing more than a result of faunal exposure to many years of continual roadway mortality and the secondary alterations of habitat (fragmentation) which roads bring.
Our surveyors, who find they have had unlucky hunting in a region formerly populous with herps, are basing their expectations upon a previous era when the roads were new, and themselves, new, happy youths first venturing into these pristine areas. A case of the aging herpetologist syndrome colliding with the aging roadside syndrome, and producing a predictable discovery: decline. These people are simply reminiscing about what they could catch in these localities prior to 20–30 years of continual highway slaughter. But reminiscence is not demography. All the "Scientific Council" can do is argue that there are less of these animals because (1) for some unknown reason they have found less of them on the days they went looking; and (2) because there are less woods nowadays for the animals to live in. In the latter instance, even the term "decline" is misleading. Would the Council have animal populations remain the same as formerly in a habitat half the size it used to be?
With an almost manic fixation the "Scientific Council" ignores the obviously significant causes of herptile depopulation in favor of a single-minded pursuit of an "individual human persecutor" —a cause no scientific validation can support. Its authors do this on the basis of pure speculation, not on any direct study of the effects of commercial trade by piecemeal collection, while ignoring the compelling, urgent and important impacts, such as: (1) development and clear-cutting of forests (including for pine-farming and agriculture); (2) road building and roadway death, with fragmentation of roadside habitat; (3) effects of chemical and fecal pollutants, pesticides, golf course fertilizer runoff, highway runoff, agricultural fertilizer runoff, chemical herbicides used in pine tree farming, hog spill wastes and other wastes from Intensive Livestock Operations. Wouldn't these constitute a more likely cause for any perceived decline in reptile populations than a few pet enthusiasts? Powerful constituents continue to pollute rivers and streams in North Carolina on a massive scale. Large scale polluters have already dumped trillions of gallons of pure hog waste into our waterways and continue to do so; swamps and bogs and other vital wildlife habitat continue to be destroyed while regulations like these target mere pet hobbyists. Does the "Scientific Council" really believe that the pet hobbyist poses a comparable threat? Are there so many people keeping rattlesnakes in their homes?
Clear-cutting of forests continues at an unprecedented rate throughout the south. Forest cover in southeastern North Carolina alone has been reduced by about half in less than five years, surely one of the most devastating environmental catastrophes in state history. All this has been done and continues with the full approval of the Forestry Department, which must count itself as complicit. Southeastern N.C.’s largest cypress swamp (and the third largest in the nation) has been drained repeatedly, continuously sprayed with chemicals and is now a pulp-wood pine farm. This poisoned pine monoculture offered as a replacement for natural woodlands cannot be considered habitat for most snakes, rattlesnakes among them. While the Piedmont has been turned into a fair approximation of Iowa, International Paper seems to own the whole of the coastal plain—and do with it what they might.
Champion International and other northwestern paper companies, having logged out 90% of the national forest land it had access to in Montana, have since relocated their bulldozers to the south (Outdoor Life, April, 2000). With their vast monetary influences (called "campaign support") they have managed to convince state governments throughout the south that clear-cutting, formerly forbidden, is now "sustainable." Sustainable for whom? For themselves, obviously. But not for long. For if clear-cutting really is sustainable, why have these gigantic northwestern pulp industries had to relocate? Answer: like a vampire exhausting the blood supply of the host, they have had to move on to the next willing victim.
And willing we be, for there are big bucks in this mass death. The "Scientific Council" complains that a man can sell a rattlesnake for 10 or 15 dollars: why bother making nickels and dimes with snakes when you can sell the whole forest for $25,000 an acre? While the "Scientific Council" dallies with a few pet hobbyists, whole regions of the south are being bulldozed, poisoned and burned.
Why has the "Scientific Council" not pursued these causes with the same zeal as they have applied to the obviously low-impact piecemeal collector in order to better preserve reptiles, like game and fishes, as a usable resource for all North Carolinians? Answer: because the piecemeal collector is an easy target. Organs like the NCWRC are anxious to comply, for it gives an impression of being "on top of the situation" (or they may actually think they are on top of the situation). And herein lies the greatest danger for we are not on top of the situation. We are not even remotely attempting to fix the situation. We are only deluding ourselves with an outmoded ESA that things are being put under control, and from there encouraged to support more such degenerated theories and programs that, wrong at base, can only get more wrong as the incorrectly diagnosed disease continues to elude our attentions.
How many snakes does a hawk eat? How many hawks?
Circa the 1960s snakes were so common in some parts of North Carolina that many people simply kept out of the woods for fear of them. This is not an exaggeration. Large wetland tracts had not yet been drained for pine deserts, and in the Green Swamp one could catch literally hundreds of water moccasins in a single day. The land literally "bled" fish and frogs. Large highways were almost unknown, and most rural two-lane blacktops were scarcely traveled. Within a few miles of my home town (Wilmington) it was possible to catch everything from scarlet snakes to pigmy rattlesnakes, if one was willing to go out after dark and ride slowly through the steam-haze rising off the hot summer roads, most of them newly built through otherwise pristine areas.
These roads are still there, but their character has completely changed. The pristine habitat has been logged a dozen times, and gradually replaced with more and more pine desert. There are less fish in the streams, and less snakes along side of them. Water snakes (Nerodia), which were once so abundant as to weigh down the branches of swamp willows, are now only sporadically seen. The "country life" is now a "suburban life", overrun with subdivisions. City commuting is now a way of life for people that would once have been branded as "hicks" on account of where they lived. Now it would seem the hick is disappearing along with the snakes! Huge industrialized complexes have replaced the "family farm" and pigs and other animals are now manufactured, not farmed, and in a state where hogs outnumber humans, a steady stream of porcine sewage outflows from waste lagoons the size of football stadiums into river tributaries on an alarmingly regular basis. An endless hum of motorcars drowns out the humming of crickets and frogs even in remote backwaters, and the nights never get completely dark for the glare of lights from town and city. The white men didn't need to massacre the Indians: they only had to wait until they were through with their improvements, for no native American no matter how skilled could find a way to live off this degenerated land.
There is another change in the character of the countryside: it is the proliferation of hawks and vultures. The rise in vultures is no mystery: the roadways are littered with animal carcasses, and as any surveyor of road killed herptiles soon learns, he must contend with avian scavengers as the number one threat to his researches, getting up early enough in the morning to count the nightly road kills before the buzzards get there first and gobble up the evidence.
Since the ban of DDT pesticides, the rise of hawk populations has been uncanny. Having few natural enemies, and being better equipped to dodge cars than land-crawling predators like snakes (their principle competitors in the food chain), hawks have gone from being a rare sight to one of the most commonly seen birds in North Carolina. The mostly bird-eating Cooper's hawks (Accipiter cooperii) have reached such numbers as to threaten populations of bobwhite quail. As a result, a former chief at NCWRC recently asked that they be removed from protection status.
So we must ask: how many snakes does a hawk eat? And how many rodents that would have been the prey of snakes, are being eaten by populations of hawks that have, to all, appearances, got out of control? Studies tell us that red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) make reptiles—mostly snakes— up to 41% of their diet (averaging 7% overall) (Johnsgard, 1990). Red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) make reptiles and amphibians about 29% of their overall diet (with mammals 65%).
It seems safe to say that a population of hawks large enough to threaten the quail population must be making inroads upon snakes as well. How many hawks are there? Riding the highways one can easily spot from between one and 10 raptors per linear mile. Using the parsimonious one raptor/sq mi, we must have at least 52,700 birds that eat snakes in North Carolina. How many they actually eat is unknown, but allowing one snake to each bird per week during the 35-week annual active period of snakes, and we have a total of 1,844,500 snakes eaten by hawks each year in North Carolina. This figure may be high or it may be low—but it serves to implicate hawks at least capable of a considerable take. It also serves to illustrate how insignificant the deliberate human persecution of snakes is by comparison.
If even 2% of these 1,844,500 morsels are rattlesnakes, then we can make a guess that roughly 36,890 rattlesnakes (probably juveniles or babies) are eaten every year in North Carolina by hawks (1% = 18,445 rattlesnakes). In looking for reasons for "reptile decline," we must not ignore the fact that in the snake hunting heydays of 30 years ago, there were a lot less hawks to compete with. Indeed, the extraordinary snake populations of the 1950–60s can be correlated with (among other things) the diminished raptor populations of the preceding decades (and/or other factors). It is not inconceivable that what we are seeing in the present day represents a more normal snake population than existed during that time of low raptor activity. But there were also a lot less open fields for hawks to hunt in those days (from clear cutting and agriculture), and a lot less roads piling up carrion.
A contribution of ignorance: The popular herp article
The object of this paper so far has been to detail some remarkable instances in a moral epidemic that has been excited, at once by one cause and sometimes by another, by the infatuations of imitative and gregarious men and women. One does not have to search far through human history to see that the "Scientific Council" is not an isolated phenomenon. The bandwagon fever, with its self-promulgating "protection racket" appears to be mushrooming up in all states simultaneously, as though orchestrated by a single hidden director. And yet, while there is self-aggrandizement involved to be sure, the director unmasked would probably prove to be nothing more conspiratorial than plain old human self-deception. I have no doubt that, at base, the "Scientific Council" really believe they are doing a good and worthy thing. And their delusion happened to them just as it happened to the rest of us, by a long and venerable accretion of nameless origins.
Deluded by the anti-pet propaganda emanating from highly funded organizations like PETA and their mouthpiece, the USFWS (which makes no secret that their "goal" is to shut down the hobbyist pet industry), a host of well intended literature has arisen to supply the timeworn catch-phrases by which a mostly disinterested public becomes conditioned to accept opinion as truth.
Pick up any popular book or article on the subject of vanishing wildlife, and unless the writer is very astute, you will soon observe where his emotionalism takes over and his logic walks out. Even the hobbyist literature is quick to implicate the "insidious" pet trade as a major player in the wrecking of the global ecology. This should not seem strange, for probably no literature in man's history, outside of certain religious tracts, prints more unsubstantiated information as "fact" than this latest extension of the "pet lover" venue. Here every man, woman or child who has ever kept a pet frog in his toilet can qualify as instant "author," assured of instantaneous acceptance of his manuscript submission. Relying not on precision, but on readability, carrying the reader from generality to generality while the writer inserts his own amusing insights and opinions, the popular herp article is booming business for the few successful magazines that publish this sort of "tabloid science." Fed on a diet of such material, the delusions of the readership from which the writers are themselves recruited become self-generating. Careful examination of such articles, however, almost always reveals extraordinary inconsistencies.
Example: I have just read in Reptiles magazine (May 2000) in an article by Dick Bartlett, how the eastern diamondback rattlesnake in Okeetee (in the South Carolina low country) has been depleted by "commercial collecting for the pet and skin trades." Bartlett, a capable writer with extensive herp-experience more conscientious in his treatment than most, for he does mention, within the same breath, that "highway fatalities and the killing of the rattlers by landowners" also contribute. Nevertheless, it is the pet trade he mentions first (he has evidently not read Enge, 1993, or Berish, 1998). Whatever his intentions, by his slipped pen he implants in the reader's mind an idea that the pet trade constitutes a significant, perhaps the most significant, impact on these snakes. Granted, the author may not think the pet trade very significant himself. He has only mentioned some causes, and not necessarily in any particular order. Indeed, were he to go about actually ranking these impacts according to their level of importance, he might soon persuade himself to rewrite his remark and leave off "pet trade" entirely, or else consign it to some appropriate marginalia. However, he needn't worry, for it is by now the habit of readers to expect this idea as politically correct verbiage. Since almost every other popular article mimics this same idea, the writer is free to make his statement as "fact" without much fear of being called out. "How can it be wrong?" the reader asks; "it is printed in hundreds of other articles. . . and I have seen it on TV." It is a perfect example of Imre Lakatos' definition of a "degenerating program," i.e., a theory fabricated (in this case by the popular media) to accommodate a known fact. A case of correlation being mistaken for causation. The fact of that some snakes end up being sold means (in the pathological approach) that many snakes are being sold, ergo, a significant number are being sold, and this selling of snakes is the problem.
Reading the Bartlett article, however, we find it mostly self-refuting. We learn that, while the pet trade (among other causes) has caused the diamondback to disappear in Okeetee, the canebrake rattlesnake is still numerous, copperheads are common, as are true pet trade items, like the Okeetee corn snake, greenish rat snake and king snake. In short, better pet trade items are abundant, while the least of all hobbyist trade items, the highly dangerous eastern diamondback rattlesnake has been depleted by the hobbyist market!
There is more: We learn that Okeetee is "legendary for its population of scarlet king snakes" but that "probably because so many collectors have destroyed so much microhabitat far fewer are being seen." Yet in an earlier paragraph the writer informs us that Okeetee is closed to herp collectors (it has been so for over 30 years; pers. observation), and that "today there is virtually no access to the area to any but hunt club members." So where in three dimensional space are the "fewer scarlet king snakes" being seen, and who is collecting them—the hunt club members?
He gives us a hint in a previous paragraph: "With the private lands closed, each spring there is still a parade of herpers plying the public dirt and paved roads of the region hoping to see a corn snake, a canebrake rattler, or even a greenish rat snake." Evidently, if one wants to see a scarlet king snake in Okeetee, or a diamondback or any other snake, one must "ply the roads" in order to find them. The "destroyed habitat" has been off limits for a quarter of a century. Herp hunters cannot enter the private lands (only a select few have special permits), and yet without being able to do so, have yet managed to destroy the microhabitat of at least one species (the scarlet king snake), and deplete populations of another (the diamondback rattlesnake) to be sold off as pets.
One can only conclude that if this is going on, it is going on under the noses of a disapproving hunt club. And yet anyone who has ever tried to enter the Okeetee lands without a permit knows just how difficult such a feat is. All but the Tilman road is gated; but try to park on the side of the road and attempt to walk into Okeetee lands and you will be met by a barrage of local hunt club members (or their friends) who will either have you arrested for trespassing or throw you out forcibly. They know why you are there. One could at best hunt a very small area of roadside habitat along the Tilman road, within a very short time frame before your timely arrest.
Bartlett is a capable writer who has written many fine popular articles, but the advent of the popular herp article with its expectation of good light reading has erected opinion to the level of factuality, and all the misconceptions this entails. And Bartlett has not actually lied: probably some diamondbacks from Okeetee are been picked up off roads and end up in the pet trade. And perhaps some individuals have slipped into the woods and damaged some roadside habitat. But to state that snake collectors have had a significant impact in Okeetee is to ignore some pretty big obstacles: (1) that herp collectors have not been allowed there for 30 years; and the rattlesnakes are still apparently "declining"; (2) that snakes in the roadbed are already targets for mortality so collecting them makes no difference; and (3) the sheer size of Okeetee. With nothing portrayed in its correct proportion, the effect is once again that of a devilish pet industry gone out of control and wrecking the natural order of the world. Like Greene (1997), who, trusting the pathological approach of his informants, devoted almost two pages to rattlesnake den destruction and only a couple of sentences to development, he has (no matter what his intention) given us to believe that deliberate persecution of an invisible predator has pushed it to the brink of extinction, when neither cause nor effect can be shown in evidence.
Is the diamondback disappearing in Okeetee? I have been going to the South Carolina lowlands off and on for 25 years (it is only four hours from my house). From my perspective, the diamondback was as hard to find then as now, only I am older and creakier and less amenable to fruitless snake-hunts than in the days of my youth. The aging herpetologist syndrome. Snakes are where and when you find them: that's just about all that can be said. Whatever "happened" to the diamondback rattlesnake in Okeetee (if something did happen) must have happened well before my time—and before the time of the "roaring pet trade" as well. And yet had it existed, I might have taken the easy way out like Bartlett and a hundred other writers and blamed pet hobbyists for my wasted efforts and fat stomach.
Heyward Clamp, Jr., Director of the Edisto Island Serpentarium, has probably seen more South Carolina diamondbacks than any man alive. For over 40 years he's been surveying diamondback populations, and if I may say so, I have not talked to any person who has a more informed view on the conservation aspects of these snakes. He designed the first artificial hibernacula for diamondbacks to replace stump-hole loss, and began seeking ways to repopulate diamondbacks back in an age when most scientists weren't even aware of a problem. While protection advocates pay only lip service to diamondbacks, Clamp actually does something to try to help them.
Clamp believes diamondback populations tend toward a natural rise and fall (pers. communication and Clamp, 1994). He credits their rise in South Carolina (in the 1950s) to an incidence of hurricanes in years previous, which created stump holes (winter refugia) out of felled trees; limited logging (but not clear-cutting) with burning of the intact stump (whose interior has to rot out to permit the snake passage to get inside); and quail farming on reserves (grain is put out to feed the birds, which increases rodent populations). Gopher tortoise burrows are not much available to diamondbacks in this region; in fact, there are very few of the tortoises in South Carolina, which lies at the northernmost extremity of their range.
The distribution of diamondbacks in the two states north of Georgia can then be described as an opportunistic distribution dependent on available hibernacula, and these hibernacula are created by heavy storm activity (e.g., hurricanes). Clamp goes on to state that these contingencies have had little effect on canebrake rattlesnake populations, which can make more opportunistic use of underground refugia for wintering. Being smaller, less robust snakes with noticeably smaller heads, they are able to infiltrate smaller holes, just as are many colubrids. Clamp says he is seeing the same numbers of C. horridus today as 40 years ago.
I asked him what he thought about the effects of pine logging on diamondbacks. "Good, if the stump is cut off and allowed to remain in the ground. The diamondback does well in open canopy pine forest. But in closed canopy, such as in pine farming, they are wiped out. Pine farming and clear-cutting remove the pine stumps, with obvious results. Probably the single greatest threat to diamondback survival is enduring the winter cold. How man farms timber is by far and away the most important factor relevant to diamondback survival in South Carolina."
And in North Carolina too. I told Clamp how after the last hurricane "epidemic" in North Carolina the timber companies were rushing in to clear-cut wherever large numbers of trees were felled, and hauling off the stumps and or burning them on site. "Then you will not have diamondbacks in North Carolina," he replied.
It seems the "stump-hole rattler" (local vernacular for diamondback) has simply disappeared along with its stumps!
"What about persecution?" I asked him. "Can this be affecting diamondback populations too?"
"Around human dwellings, yes. But once you get back into the woods persecution has a minimal effect. For example, in 1966 I was hired to remove nuisance diamondbacks from a 1000-acre plantation. Since I could not succeed the first year I went back the next. And 35 years later I am still going back. For all my efforts I am still harvesting about the same number of diamondbacks that I was in the 1960s—about 10–20 examples per year. You have to realize that diamondback collection is strictly seasonal. You have only about a three to four week window in which to find them, ending in about the third week of April. After that, the vegetation becomes so dense that the snakes (or their holes) cannot be found. One can only catch a very small proportion of the snakes, since for every one you find, there may be a half-dozen more underground."
"What can I do to help diamondbacks in my state?"
"You need to talk to the forestry department, not the game department. The game department can do nothing for them. Unless, however, the game department can exert pressures on the forestry department. . . ."
And I reported to him that because diamondbacks are not considered "game" in North Carolina, there is nothing the game department can do for them at the forestry department, so useless is it to protect a "nongame" animal. But if one could get rid of the semantical obstruction of "nongame," and reclassify all herptiles as "game," then it might be possible to take direct action to improve the game resource.
I might mention here that the pathological approach to scientific investigation has evidently been adopted as the creed of the South Carolina Department of Resources as well. They have persistently opposed Clamp's edifying suggestions on repopulating diamondbacks, and ignored his views on what is happening to them. This is not because his contentions lack merit (obviously they provide the only workable solution), but on account of his limited connection to commercial trade at his privately owned Serpentarium disqualifying him as a reputable source: in other words, he is not on the state payroll. The pariah syndrome: he is The Enemy, with whom the "clean hands" of hypocritical government are forbidden to consort. Forbidden by whom? By a tacit consensus, by the invasive PETA, by backward and self-deluded herpetologists sleeping in state offices, who have not even a fraction of the field experience Clamp does. Here again it is the mouth speaking, not the words spoken, that government is listening to, simply because they don't have any discerning knowledge themselves. As in North Carolina, South Carolina is also under considerable pressure from USFWS. Committees convening in secret, and handing down their totalitarian edict at the price of our continued funding. The insoluble conflicts and quack cures which they drag out from year to year insure that there will always be a comfortable desk for them to sit at somewhere, if not in this state, then the next. The attitude of South Carolina toward Heyward Clamp is tantamount to ignoring the needs of the fishing industry in order to govern fishing; of ignoring the factual input of those who have actual contact with wildlife, in favor of the mere opinions of desk chair operators who may never have actually seen the live animal in the field, and can only vaguely guess what is going on in a foggy exterior world in which they may have only set foot for show in a newspaper clipping.
There may be men of Heyward Clamp's caliber in every state, their wiser but quieter voices shouted over by the louder mouths of Federal poseurs working on state salary and with none of the experience. Only rarely does there appear a Don Young, Chairman of the Congressional Resources Committee, willing and able to take a hard look at these illogical people and smoke them out from their smokeless offices where they dissemble behind their fabrications and non-data. And among scientists, it is the rare Joan Berish or Kevin Enge who actually gets out and finds out what is going on, and reports it.
While I did not, 25 years ago, find diamondbacks in the Okeetee area, I did, oddly enough, find them further south in coastal Georgia within the range of the commercially exploitative rattlesnake round-ups. What does this suggest? That the rattlesnake round-ups are less damaging to populations of these snakes than "whatever" has affected them in the Okeetee? I haven't the least idea. However, if I employ pathological science I can make a number of correlations that will sound like facts to a naive public. I can stammer out that the "insidious" pet trade is not at work in northern Georgia but is yet going strong in the Okeetee due to its greater reputation (conveniently ignoring the fact that herp collectors can't set foot there). Or I can grasp at less unreasonable, but still unsubstantiated straws, claiming that the human battle against snakes in North America, after more than 200 years, has at long last been won in an obscure South Carolina backwater. In any event, no matter what my statement my science will have become pathological because it will be a fabrication: part of a degenerating program. It will be degenerating because it will not generate new discoveries—it can at best account for old ones. Note, however, that any and all of my fabrications would be perfectly acceptable in a tabloid literature that does not require anything more than an author's opinions (or another author's opinions cited) to back them up. To a USFWS prepared to act on these fabrications because it is to their bureaucratic advantage to do so, my remarks would be welcomed like dear old friends.
The UFO phenomenon; the healing power of magnets (and its opposite; the cancer causing power of magnetic fields); "cold-fusion"; the extraordinary "polywater" (a wonderful new kind of water which made scientific headlines for years, was supposed to be of great benefit to mankind and yet which one camp of scientists feared might contaminate "normal" water and destroy the world—later so-called "polywater" was proved not even to exist!); Sagan's "nuclear winter"; and now the "Alvarez Hypothesis" (that the dinosaurs were extirpated by a meteor). This is the whacked-out landscape in which we breed our fears of an insidious pet industry. In the case of the Alvarez Hypothesis, a popular poll shows that the majority of people actually believe the tale of the gigantic asteroid collision having caused the mass extinction. They also believe that the scientists believe it as well! (After all, it is scientific "fact" that they imagine they are echoing). A phenomenon to which the media has contributed in no small way. The depiction of the gigantic asteroid plowing into Earth (shown with the latest special-effects graphics) and fomenting such a cloud of dust as to abolish Earth's most spectacular living creatures is so impressive as to be unforgettable. Seeing is believing, and we've seen it on TV. And yet a poll among scientists shows that the greater majority (70%) do not believe in the Alvarez Hypothesis, do not support it, can find no evidence for it, and indeed, have assembled a great deal more evidence against it (Officer and Page, 1996). Indeed, paleontology had quite adequate explanations for dinosaur extinction well before Luis Alvarez ever found the implicating iridium on which he based (falsely) his idea. But these explanations are less spectacular subjects for special effects television, besides being a good deal more difficult for the public to grasp.
And less spectacular to the news media than "snake-smugglers" (and to a USFWS bent on promoting its own insecure position) is the fact of a species of snake disappearing en masse simply because its stump-holes are disappearing en masse.
And so a "Scientific Council," panicking before the voices of "decline," add their own Chicken Little opinion into the brew ("Look out for the asteroids!"), conscientiously building totems from myths, facts out of private obsessions, and pitching in with the same "end of the millennium" hysteria that characterizes a belief in alien abduction. Without giving any study to the matter themselves, but feeling that they are echoing accepted scientific fact, Mr. Scientific Council Member climbs on the bandwagon behind a zealous crusader who seems to know his business. . . then he just relaxes his mind and goes along for the ride. And why not, it's a safe bet it's true; everybody says so. "But how do you know," you ask them innocently. "Because studies say so," they reply. "Which studies?" you ask them. "Oh my dear boy," they reply, "don't waste my time."
All this would be merely harmless idiocy if it were not such contagious idiocy; if it did not so misplace our efforts to save this world of ours, and drain our money to do it with. Succumbing to the age-old foibles that characterize all manias, from the Crusades to the Mississippi Bubble, the worst is yet to come for the "Scientific Council." For Langmuir notes one other inevitability of the pathological approach: the sixth symptom of the degenerating program: that the ratio of supporters to critics rises to somewhere near 50 percent and then falls gradually away to oblivion.
Supporters of the "Scientific Council" are already falling away. This paper is a symptom of it. For happily, the very processes of science have so far tended to overcome these human shortcomings over time. We do make progress.
And yet degenerated science does a considerable amount of damage while it lives. In attributing the greatest effect to the least cause, it diverts our energies away from the real problems facing wildlife, giving us the luxurious feeling that something is being done, our best brains at work, even if those brains are only busy stewing their own private alchemies. But they will not turn lead into gold for all their efforts. And wildlife will continue to decline in spite of them.
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