by Whit Gibbons

September 24, 2006

This was to be the autumn I didn't write about snakes, even though snakes are more abundant right now than they will be until this time next year. I was not going to mention snakes, even though they are a significant component of ecosystems in all but the coldest of the world's climates. As top-of-the-food chain carnivores, snakes are among the best environmental barometers of ecosystem health.

The reason I wasn't going to write about snakes was because I wrote about them last fall and didn't want to belabor the point. But numerous calls and emails about snakes in suburban neighborhoods suggest a need to reprise the message. Plus, snakes have surfaced in another way that is far more threatening than snakes themselves. Disquieting information from conservation biologists about a little garter snake in Wisconsin should be noted by anyone concerned about the environment. So . . . here's another column about snakes.

The issue of the little Wisconsin snake concerns a reported attempt by state legislators to ignore efforts designed to protect species that are threatened or endangered. Butler's garter snake is a rare, inoffensive snake that lives around Milwaukee. The snake's habitat has been targeted as prime development property. But the snake is protected by the state as a threatened species. The response should be, go develop somewhere else.

Nonetheless, a Wisconsin legislative committee has ruled, according to a report I saw, that the snake's protection should be removed. One conservation alert states that "if the delisting takes effect, it will be the first time in the nation's history" that a species in need of protection "has been delisted for economic reasons and without sound scientific data driving the decisions." If true, all of us should be concerned: profit-making development would trump the protection of wildlife, habitat, and our natural heritage. Such a decision could set a precedent for easing the protection of wildlife species nationwide. This would decidedly not be to our long-term advantage.

As for snakes on the home front, the reason for the proliferation of snakes in some residential areas, especially suburban neighborhoods constructed in the forest homes of native wildlife only a few months or years ago, should be obvious. Snakes and other wildlife still lay claim to territory where we chose to build houses. My children were taught that snakes and other native wildlife were here before we were. They were told to be careful where they stepped, and if they saw a snake to stand back and enjoy watching it. All native wildlife is fascinating and has a rightful place wherever we find it, even in suburbia.

Meanwhile, for those who have forgotten last year's column about snakes, the quick summary is

1. More snakes are seen in autumn because late summer and early fall are when most North American snake babies appear. Those hatching from eggs, such as kingsnakes and hognose snakes, emerge from their nests at this time of year. Snakes in which the mothers have live births, such as rattlesnakes and watersnakes, produce litters now. So, little snakes are everywhere.

2. Certain snakes are seen more commonly in the fall than any other time because that is when they mate. Large male rattlesnakes, for example, are frequently seen crossing highways as they search for mates over several square miles.

3. Venomous snakebite in the United States is a rare event; each year more human deaths are caused by dogs, horses, and lightning than by all U.S. snakes. Most bites annually are by copperheads, yet practically no one ever dies from a copperhead bite. Furthermore, snakebites from rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and coral snakes generally occur because someone picked up or tried to kill the snake.

4. Snakes do not chase people. Of the hundreds of herpetologists who study and try to catch snakes, none has ever seen a venomous snake in North America chase a person.

5. Finally, don't be scammed by products that claim they will prevent snakes from entering your property, even if they are sold in otherwise reputable stores. In open areas outdoors, none of these products work as advertised. Using enough to keep snakes away would make the property uninhabitable by people.

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