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Texas Shows It’s Too Scared to Stop Folks from Gassing Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 28, 2016

Texas rattlers have good reason to be defensive  (Photo: Matt Meadows/Getty Images)

Texas rattlers have good reason to be defensive (Photo: Matt Meadows/Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart

Roughly 125 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt together with a few other pioneering thinkers introduced the idea of “fair chase” in this country. In essence, it holds that if you are going to hunt and kill animals, you should do it ethically, in a way that doesn’t dishonor the hunter, the hunted, or the environment. No canned hunts, no jacklighting, no hunting of animals that are helplessly incapacitated, no commercial slaughter of species like bison and passenger pigeons for the meat market. It was the beginning of the American conservation movement.

That piece of history came to mind as I was reading the latest news out of Texas.

Early this week, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission walked away from a proposal to ban the practice of catching rattlesnakes by spraying gasoline fumes into their dens. Collectors grab the dazed snakes as they bolt from their homes to escape the toxic fumes. You might not imagine such a practice would even exist in the 21st century, much less be a subject of heated debate. But in the small town of Sweetwater, Texas, a rattlesnake festival is the major fund-raiser for the local chapter of the Jaycees, a nationwide nonprofit ostensibly “focused on sustainable impact locally and globally.” At this year’s festival, the Jaycees bought more than 25,000 snakes caught by gassing and proceeded to chop off their heads as a form of public entertainment.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife commissioners, who describe themselves on their website as “honorable” men and women, didn’t try to defend this practice as ethical, honorable, or even sustainable. They merely indicated, by removing the ban from their agenda, that they were sick of hearing about it, after years of protest by scientists, conservationists, and much of the rest of Texas. A spokesperson cited “insufficient support from legislative oversight or the potentially regulated community” for a ban on gassing. That is, bullying by a community of 10,762 people and a few hayseed legislators was enough to get some of the most powerful people in Texas to back off.

There were plenty of reasons the commissioners should have banned gassing. First, it would have done nothing to hurt the rattlesnake festival in Sweetwater. Plenty of other communities in Texas and other states hold such festivals, catching snakes by walking around and picking them up in the traditional fashion. Maybe Sweetwater wouldn’t have been able to collect 25,000 snakes in a single year.

But that was a freak, a result of the Jaycees deciding to pay the exorbitant sum of $10 a pound for live snakes. In the past, the festival has averaged well under 10,000 snakes, and even gotten by with as few as 2,500, and still been a successful fund-raiser. This year’s over-the-top catch was a gesture, another in a long, sad catalog of know-nothings thumbing their noses at science, at the social and political establishment, and at fundamental principles of human decency.

The commissioners should also have acted because the state holds wildlife in the public trust, and its legal mandate is to maintain it based on data from scientists and wildlife managers, who universally opposed gassing.

The language of the proposed ban enumerated many of the ways pouring gasoline into the ground is bad news, especially in the porous limestone that’s common around Texas. It’s bad not just for rattlesnakes but for a host of other species living in and around their dens, including such endangered or threatened species as the Comal Springs riffle beetle, an invertebrate called the Bone Cave harvestman, and the Government Canyon Bat Cave spider.

Ultimately, though, it comes back to basic hunting ethics. “This thing with gassing is not congruent with the principles of American conservation,” said Lee Fitzgerald, a herpetologist at Texas A&M University. “We have very clear norms and principles about hunting that are all about preserving wildlife: You can’t kill deer with automatic weapons and sell every frickin’ one of them you can kill. You can’t put dynamite in a tree hole and blow up a tree to get the squirrels. You can’t hunt wildlife at night, and we even have rules about the kinds of traps you can use for furbearers. And somehow all that flies out the window when it comes to rattlesnakes.”

The chair of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission is T. Dan Friedkin, a Houston car dealer who describes himself as “an avid outdoorsman who is active in wildlife conservation initiatives in the U.S. and abroad.” He is a trustee of the Wildlife Conservation Society, a truly great organization that was founded by the same big game hunters who first preached the gospel of “fair chase.” (Send them a note via Twitter @TheWCS: “Dan Friedkin? Snake gassing? WTF?”) The vice chair of the commission is Ralph H. Duggins, a lawyer in Fort Worth, who says he is “an avid fly fisherman and hunter.” Both of them should know better than to treat gassing rattlesnakes as an acceptable way of hunting. So should all of the honorable commissioners, who have now heaped shame on themselves and the good people of Texas.

If you are a Texan who believes in protecting wildlife, take a look at where these commissioners work. Send them a note about how you feel about gassing wildlife, or just let them know why you are taking your business elsewhere. You should also lodge your protest with the national office of the U.S. Junior Chamber—the Jaycees—via Twitter @USJaycees.

What should you say? Ask the Jaycees exactly what they mean by “sustainable.” Remind them about Theodore Roosevelt and the idea of the “fair chase.” Tell them that wildlife conservation and ethical hunting practices—not gassing—are the great American patriotic traditions they need to protect. Tell themthat gassing rattlesnakes is, in a word, simply un-American.

15 Responses to “Texas Shows It’s Too Scared to Stop Folks from Gassing Wildlife”

  1. 7lizards said

    Thank you, Richard!

  2. Jim Jones said

    Gassing has absolutely no effects on rattlesnake populations which are one of the most prevalent snake species in Texas. Wealthy animal rights groups just want to be mad at someone and get more donations for selling doom . The people crying about out Texas heritage, don’t live on properties overpopulated with rattlesnakes that constantly threaten children and livestock. Hundreds of people in Texas are bit a year by accidentally stepping on them but the animal rights folks dont want you to know any of it! The TPWD did the right thing! WAKE UP AMERICA!

    • lhartley2 said

      hundreds of people are not bit by rattlesnakes a year in texas. do your research. only 1-2 die each year. most bites are because people do dumb things and do not pay attention to how to behave on land populated by venomous snakes. those snakes provide a service by keeping the rodent population down.

      google is your friend.

    • What wealthy animal rights groups have come forward in support of a gassing ban? If any have, I am unaware. In fact, having attended the Texas Rattlesnake Festival, a no-kill alternative to the traditional roundups that celebrates live rattlesnakes instead, and having been active in the Texas conservation and herp communities for several years, having met hundreds of individuals who support the gassing ban, I am yet to meet one such individual who represents a formal animal rights group of any kind.

    • You say “gassing has absolutely no effects on rattlesnake populations” as your leading argument, and yet, that is not even one of the major arguments of the featured article, but even taking your statement for what it’s worth, your statement is severely flawed. What does it mean for something to have “absolutely no effects on rattlesnake populations”? That statement of absolution would mean that such must have no effect on the ecology, behavior, etc. of even a single individual, let alone killing even a single individual. Particularly, if one kills even a single individual, then one is indeed having a measurable effect on a population; it may not be an evolutionarily or ecologically meaningful effect, but it is an effect nonetheless. But what is more important is the question of ecologically meaningful effects, and you’ve figuratively shot yourself in the foot with this one, because: if “gassing has absolutely no effects on rattlesnake populations,” ecologically speaking, then the banning of gassing would, by definition, have “absolutely no effect” on the potential for rattlesnakes to “threaten children and livestock.” So, does gassing effect rattlesnake populations and thereby decrease their potential as a threat to children and livestock? OR does gassing have “absolutely no effects on rattlesnake populations” ? It can’t be both ways.

    • Z Reynolds said

      TPWD did the right thing! Don’t believe the lies spewed by Andy Gluesenkamp and his minions! God Bless America!

  3. Ted Williams said

    Another fabulous piece by Conniff. I covered the rattlesnake slaughter in Opp, Alabama. The gasoline kills the creatures that build the burrows–gopher tortoises. And often endangered indigo snakes share the burrows with the rattlers. All collateral damage. Gassing is a disgusting practice conducted by disgusting people.

    • John Cornell said

      I couldn’t agree more. I live in the heart of rattlesnake country in sw New Mexico. I have removed many from around my home over the last 13 years. It is much easier to manage the snake population around my home than the rodent population, which are very destructive and unsanitary.

  4. P said

    I agree the TPWD did the right thing. There is zero data that fuming a bit of turpentine or gasoline down a hole causes any snake mortality. Dr. Campbell at UTA proved it. It just causes them to move out. Its not even “Gassing,” but the surbanites like the guy above want to misinform you to make you mad at something like the Nazis at concentration camps. People like Ted Williams above have no clue what they are talking about and like Jim Jones said above, they only want to be mad at something, or someone especially rural people “Disgusting practice conducted by disgusting people.” You Ted Williams are clearly a HATER of rural ways. Stop Hating! And learn to live with other people who live with venomous snakes.

    • Kevin Y said

      As a rural Texan I support living with the True Texans–those who were here long before a human set foot on the land. It’s a treasure that so much of Texas remains wild, but it is ignorant to think it will always remain that way and that we can do whatever we want with no consequence. Yes, rattlesnakes are abundant on many ranches. Yes, they pose a significant risk to humans, but does that really justify us killing them with no limits, no self restraint or rules of any sort?

      Thousands of people die every month in the U.S. in vehicle accidents, while snake bites kill fewer than 10 people per year in the U.S. Isn’t it time to get past our phobias, recognize that snakes are not our enemies, and just live carefully instead of cruelly?

  5. Andy Gluesenkamp said

    As State Herpetologist for TPWD, I spent seven years researching this issue: the effects of gasoline vapors and other chemicals on den-dwelling wildlife, the murky relationships among venom dealers and certain roundups, economic impact surveys, and surveys among stakeholders and the public. The TPW Commission decision is not grounded in scientific priciple, fact, TPWD philosophy, or reflective of the will of Texans (80% oppose gassing).

  6. Neither Ted Williams nor I is remotely close to an animal rights activist, and if I am not mistaken, we are both rural. Thank you, though, for your comments.

  7. Joshua said

    Is this ban something that TPWD could impose unilaterally? Or would a ban on their part just be reversed by the wingnuts in the state legislature, governor’s mansion, et al?

  8. […] lousy, angry-making news is, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department failed to pass a ban on using gasoline to flush rattlesnakes out of their dens for the horrific rattlesnake […]

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