Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Rattlesnake Round-ups & Drought

Crotalus atrox, JCM
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ABILENE, Texas - For Dennis Cumbie, there's little doubt that drought conditions have affected all creatures great, small and, most important for the Jaycee's yearly Rattlesnake Roundup, snaky.

"Anytime you have a drought as severe as what we've had, it's going to affect any and all wildlife," Cumbie said.

Generally, less water means a lack of brush coverage the snakes and their prey both like. And the creatures that snakes like to eat tend to disperse in harsh conditions, searching for water.

It all adds up to wandering, hungry snakes.

"Last year when I went out looking for snakes, there were quite a number (that were) emaciated, or skinny," noted Tony Baez, reptile supervisor at the Abilene Zoo.

But experts said it's often difficult to know how much the population might have decreased because of the drought, pointing more toward likely behavior changes among the reptiles than speculations about a census. The roundup, held in Sweetwater, Texas, runs from March 8 to 12.

"We think it will deter some of the snake population," Cumbie said of the parched conditions. "But our numbers have kind of decreased as far as what we've had coming into the roundup. We don't think that's because of the number of snakes out there, though, we think that just means people haven't been hunting as much."

Chairman of the venom-milking pen at the event, Cumbie said snake hunting comes and goes as a fad. In the past some hunting clubs were particularly sizable, but many have dwindled either because of old age or a lack of interest.

"I guess people are just busy, that's one part of it," he said.

Last year's 1,500 to 1,600 pounds of snakes was "kind of low," Cumbie said. Most come from about a 100-mile radius.

Cumbie, who said he has been hunting snakes since 1977, said judging from what he and others have seen in 50 years or so of roundups, the Jaycees' yearly extravaganza isn't going to damage the area snake population, no matter what the drought has done.

"This country's so rough, there's no way you'd ever hunt them all out," another reason judging area populations is difficult, he said.

The area has been in a drought since December 2010, said National Weather Service Meteorologist Nick Reimer.

"Back in October most of West Texas was in an exceptional drought," though the area has improved "greatly" with some rainfall since, he said.

But with record high temperatures last year, Reimer expected at least an "indirect" affect on snakes.

The zoo's Baez said that he was almost certain the drought had affected area snakes in a variety of ways, though mostly in terms of behavior.

A dry year can mean snakes won't grow as much, Baez said, and therefore not shed as much. Snakes under drought conditions also may not have as many offspring as in wetter years.

But it's somewhat hard to starve a snake, Baez said.

Considered "ambush predators," they can live weeks, even months, on little sustenance. Snakes will wander away from familiar areas to find food and water if conditions become prohibitive.

And that can mean coming into greater proximity with people.

"If an animal is starving, even if it's a secretive one, because it's trying to survive it's more likely to be in proximity to a person," Baez said.

Nolan County Extension Agent Zachary Wilcox said he doubted one would see "much of a decrease in numbers" of snakes because of recent dry conditions, though he said he wouldn't be surprised if there hadn't been some decline based on his own experience with rattlesnake run-ins.

"I can tell you in late summer or fall, I'll normally kill six or eight or 10 of them just out and about on dirt roads or wherever," he said. "And I can tell you I haven't seen as many of them."

(Brian Bethel is a reporter for The Abilene Reporter-News in Texas.)

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