Living with Wildlife Means Taking Pride in America

by Whit Gibbons

March 4, 2007

Kimberly Andrews, University of Georgia doctoral student at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, conducts studies with large rattlesnakes in coastal South Carolina. She is interested in how native wildlife responds to development and how people respond to wildlife. I asked her to describe her studies. Here is her response.

"Habitat loss and fragmentation are perceived to be the greatest threats to our nation’s biodiversity and the foremost catalyst for federal listing of endangered species. Scientists continue to debate about how many species we have lost or will lose, but without question we are currently experiencing unprecedented species loss due to irreversible patterns of habitat destruction.

"We can never protect all lands from development. But we can ameliorate the effects of development, thus allowing wildlife to live in their homes and our backyards. Most people are intrigued by wildlife, even potentially dangerous animals such as rattlesnakes. One of my goals is to educate developers and the general public that rattlesnakes and people can live compatibly.

"Palmetto Bluff is a development company in Bluffton, S.C., whose mission is to design and develop residential and recreational areas in an eco-friendly manner. Their approach is twofold: to support ecological research and promote scientific understanding globally, and to discover ways to build so that wildlife eradication can be avoided locally.

"My research focuses on the canebrake rattlesnake. Because it has a fairly large home range and requires a lot of land, it is significantly affected by development. As a result, these rattlesnakes are rapidly disappearing from almost all human-dominated places. I plan to use my research to protect this species at Palmetto Bluff by identifying its habitat and other environmental needs. Protecting a species like the canebrake has practical applications, as protection measures would have broad environmental value because of an umbrella effect. That is, protecting the rattlesnakes would ensure protection of other wildlife species that use the same habitats but are less sensitive to development or require fewer resources.

"I surgically implant small radio transmitters in canebrake rattlesnakes so that I can track them in both developing and undeveloped areas. My questions are (1) How do snakes in developing areas die? and (2) Does development affect a snake’s ability to get from point A to point B so that it can eat, hibernate, and find a mate?

"A practical application of the research is to know where venomous snakes live relative to where development will result in high concentrations of people. Local residents are understandably curious about the wildlife, particularly the venomous snakes. I work with them to learn how to identify snakes, understand basic animal behaviors, know what to do if they see a venomous snake, and design a yard to reduce the presence of venomous snakes in the immediate proximity of a house. Gaining such knowledge empowers residents by allaying irrational fears, which allows them to enjoy the wonders of nature inherent in local wildlife.

"I apply a permanent unique mark to every snake caught on Palmetto Bluff. These individuals can then be identified when recaptured, allowing me to gain information on all snake species relative to development. I am also working with the development company on mapping initiatives that will enable us to prioritize habitat preservation based on rarity or predicted biodiversity. We hope to document as many species as possible of the birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians that are present.

"Inevitably, some rattlesnakes will die during the study. Some will die naturally; others may be accidentally killed on roads. Some may even be killed intentionally by people who object to rattlesnakes inhabiting their world. These fatalities will be incorporated into the study and will elucidate how human presence affects wildlife survival. Palmetto Bluff has demonstrated an enlightened attitude toward protection of native wildlife, including species some people consider unwelcome. Their open-mindedness and their investment in the study enable this novel research.

"Native wildlife is a part of our country’s natural heritage and part of what makes being an American special. We should be proud of it and help protect it. If we fail to take the initiative now, our opportunity to preserve wildlife will be lost forever."

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