The eastern diamondback rattlesnake, one of the world's least popular forms of wildlife, was proposed Monday for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
A group of conservation organizations filed a petition Monday with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the snake a threatened species, which would make it a felony to harm one.
Backers of the petition know they have a public relations challenge not faced by defenders of blue whales, Florida panthers or bottlenose dolphins.
“Negative human attitudes toward the species are one of the primary reasons for its demise,” said Collette Adkins Giese, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups filing the petition. “I believe, and the Center for Biological Diversity believes, that biodiversity itself has value, all parts of the ecosystem should be protected and the rattlesnake is part of the natural heritage of the eastern United States.”
The snake, found from the Everglades through North Carolina, has sustained a sharp decline due to the destruction of longleaf pine forests, the skin trade and rattlesnake roundups in which the snakes are captured and killed in front of an audience, according to the petition. The current population represents only about 3 percent of the snake’s historic numbers, according to the petition.
Rattlesnake roundups are a particularly “gruesome” activity, according to the petition. “Objectionable roundup activities include the slaughter of live snakes in front of crowds, harassment of captive snakes to promote hissing and strikes, holding of snakes in overcrowded pens that crush many individuals, and transport of snakes in tightly-packed crates where many die of overheating and dehydration,” the petition states.
Filing the petition were the Center for Biological Diversity, Protect All Living Species and One More Generation, as well as Bruce Means, a biologist and adjunct professor at Florida State University.
The snake is a very important prey item, particularly younger snakes, which are eaten by bobcats, hawks and other snakes, Means said in an email.Females typically produce 14 young at a time, producing three or four clutches in her lifetime, although the vast majority never reach adulthood.
"In a stable population, she only leaves behind one baby to replace her, so 41-55 young are eaten by predators, die of disease, or are run over, chopped by garden hoes, stomped, or otherwise killed by Homo sapiens," he wrote.
In South Florida they can be found in such natural areas as Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve and Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
Although the snakes can be dangerous, they don't deserve their fearsome reputation, the groups say.
“Despite the robust appearance of this venomous snake, the eastern diamondback poses little threat to public safety,” the petition states. “More people are killed each year by bee stings and lightning strikes.”