Gassing Snakes for Fun Doesn't Rattle Texas Wildlife Regulators

State officials decline to ban the practice of spraying gasoline fumes into dens during 'rattlesnake roundups' that result in the death of thousands of animals.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake in defensive posture. (Photo: Matt Meadows/Getty Images)

Oct 28, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

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 them, in a word, that gassing rattlesnakes is simply un-American.