(Photo: Greg Ward/Getty Images)
My latest column for Takepart, the website of the movie company Participant Media:
Members of the Texas State Parks and Wildlife Commission had a rare opportunity in January to commit an act of political courage. If they’d done it, hundreds of native Texans—and the creatures living around them—might have been spared a needlessly horrifying death this week.
A vote originally scheduled for the commission’s January meeting would have ended the practice of spraying gas fumes into cracks and crevices in the ground to drive rattlesnakes out of their dens. The groggy victims get tossed into bags and delivered to a rattlesnake roundup in Sweetwater, a town of 10,600 about three hours west of Fort Worth, which has made itself notorious with this practice. Because of the non-vote, the roundup will take place this Saturday and Sunday as usual.
The practice of gassing snakes, once common, is now regarded as barbaric even by the state’s other rattlesnake roundups. More than 9,000 people supported the proposed ban during the state’s yearlong round of research and public hearings. Apart from the question of cruelty, the argument against the practice is straightforward: Gasoline sprayed into the porous karst, or limestone, inevitably gets into groundwater, and that’s bad news, as the Houston Press reported, “for anyone or anything—especially out in West Texas—who, you know, likes to drink water.”
Gassing also threatens other karst wildlife. Studies have found “dramatic and obvious” effects, from “short-term impairment to death” in snakes, lizards, toads, and other vertebrates living in and around rattlesnake denning sites. The gassing also kills many karst invertebrates listed as endangered or threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among them the Comal Springs riffle beetle, the Bone Cave harvestman, and the Government Canyon Bat Cave spider.
In the face of overwhelming support from around the state, the Parks and Wildlife Commission decided to delay the vote. “I view it as total cowardice,” one local conservationist remarked. The commissioners, who are unsalaried and serve at the pleasure of the governor, delayed the vote, the conservationist theorized, because “no one will do anything if it is going to upset anyone, anywhere,” or at least not anywhere in Texas.
The commissioners may have wanted to avoid controversy ahead of this week’s state legislative primaries. They may particularly have wanted to avoid raising a sensitive issue for Rep. Susan King, R-Abilene, who represents Sweetwater. King was the only person allowed to make a statement at the meeting at which the commission had been scheduled to vote on the gassing ban, and she delivered a rambling, disjointed, Sarah Palin–esque argument for doing nothing.
Among other things, King recalled her horror Read the rest of this entry »