Rattlesnakes are delisted


Harrisburg — Timber rattlesnakes are in trouble in a lot of states across the Northeast, that much everyone seemed to agree on.

What that should mean in terms of management of the species in Pennsylvania was more contentious.

Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commissioners, acting on the advice of their staff, took the timber rattlesnake off the candidate list at their July meeting. That list is reserved for species that are thought to be in danger of becoming threatened or endangered.

That was the case for the timber rattlesnake back in 1978, when it went on the list, said Chris Urban, chief of the agency’s wildlife diversity section. It’s not now, he said.

A number of rules changes meant to protect the species – a limited hunting season, a reduction in annual harvest to one per person, minimum size restrictions meant to protect females and juveniles – and an increase in public education to teach more people to tolerate the snakes account for that, he said.

Urban said the numbers back that up.

A statewide assessment of timber rattlesnakes done between 2003 and 2014 – despite not accounting for 25 percent of the state that’s proven inaccessible for various reasons – found them to be “secure across their range,” Urban said.

In fact, he said, that work and anecdotal evidence from snake hunters, who these days report finding more of the venomous creatures than at any time in recent decades, indicates they’re doing very well.

“That’s not a species on the decline. That’s a species in recovery,” Urban said.

Some others disagreed.

A technical committee of the Pennsylvania Biological Survey – made up of scientists from the commission, academia and elsewhere – voted on two occasions to delist the snakes here. Neither vote was unanimous, however.

One member who voted against delisting said as much in a letter to the commission board.

“I believe that delisting the timber rattlesnakes at this time is premature and contrary to the wise conservation management of this species,” wrote Howard Reinart, a biology professor from the College of New Jersey who’s been studying the snakes here for decades.

He cited a number of reasons for his opposition. They included threats from “wanton persecution” to lack of a habitat management program to the fact that a “robust long-term population monitoring program” has just begun and won’t be finished for years.

He also suggested that because Pennsylvania is home to more timber rattlesnakes than any other state around it, the commission needs to manage it as a “responsibility species.”

That was one of the arguments made on behalf of two other groups by people testifying in person at the meeting.

Spokeswomen for the Mountain Watershed Association in Fayette County and Delaware Riverkeeper Network of Bucks County also recommended commissioners delay acting on the delisting proposal.

Melissa Marshall of the Watershed Association said delisting would be a “big mistake” because of the “many and varied” threats the species faces, none of which the commission has adequately addressed.

In all, 73 people submitted public comments prior to the meeting; 71 opposed delisting. Another 2,200 or so letters in opposition came in after the public comment period ended. Those were form letters generated by a story on the website of the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based organization that bills itself as using “science, law and creative media” to protect species.

It urged people to submit the form letter and “tell the Fish & Boat Commission that now is not the time to give up on timber rattlesnake recovery.”

Commissioners, though, went ahead anyway, saying they were putting their trust in the science collected by their staff.

That work found timber rattlesnakes in 51 of the state’s 67 counties. Populations in the central part of the state in particular are very dense, Urban said, to the point of being perhaps greater than anywhere else in the North.

There are a few spots, in the northwest corner of the state, where localized populations may be less than they once were, he said.

“But it’s not a regional assessment. You don’t look at one spot. You look across the whole state,” he said.

Commissioners Bill Sabatose, of Elk County, and Len Lichvar, of Somerset, said that was good enough for them. Lichvar said he was willing to link his reputation to that of Urban and his staff because of his faith in their work.

Commission Executive Director John Arway said delisting the timber rattlesnake does not mean the agency is turning its back on it.

“We’re not going to let down our guard,” he added.

The commission has plans in place to continue monitoring the species, he said. If populations ever decline, Arway noted, the commission can make changes accordingly.

In the meantime, the rattlesnake’s delisting is good news, said Dave Spotts, a retired employee of the agency. Once director of the Bureau of Environmental Services, he said a lot of people worked very hard for a lot of years to get to this point.

“This is our bald eagle. It’s a great day in conservation,” Spotts said.

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