Who will save our snakes?

By Joseph E. Forks
San Antonio, Texas
President, Herp Conservation Unlimited
For immediate and free press release
July 12, 2007

A battle is brewing over our state's non-game resources. Reptiles and Amphibians in Texas find themselves caught in the middle of a firestorm between Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas House of Representatives and Herpetologists - the people who study Reptiles and Amphibians.

It all started innocently enough with the introduction of Texas House Bill 2414 by Representative Carl Isett, district 84. That bill, as introduced, prohibited hunting game animals and fowl from public roads and right of ways. No one would argue with that language as game and bird hunters use weapons. It never was legal to discharge firearms from a public road or right of way.

Things got quite a bit more interesting when Representative Harvey Hilderbran, district 53, introduced Texas C.S. HB 2414, a substitution to the original bill that contained a minor language change with major implications. The term "game animal" changed to "wild animal" and suddenly the bill had the attention of every Herpetologist in the state of Texas.

Herpetologists cruise the back roads and right of ways at night in Texas searching for Reptiles and Amphibians. Herpetologists from all walks of life, including doctors, nurses, attorneys, professional athletes, blue collar workers, very young and very old engage in nightly forays into the deserts of Trans Pecos Texas in search of the Gray-banded Kingsnake and other elusive Reptiles and Amphibians indigenous to the area. We are naturalists, birders, writers, painters, photographers, and scientists.

These animals are not rare, but they are hard to find. Most species are in no danger of being over collected. Look out over the vast expanse of private land and inaccessible habitat and you'll see why. These animals spend most of their life underground in the cracks of the rocky landscape. The roads and right of ways are narrow transects that pass through various habitats throughout the state. Collecting here is much more environmentally conservative because it leaves vast tracts of undisturbed land as a buffer zone. The roads and right of ways in west Texas represent a fraction in comparison to the inaccessible, undisturbed private land beyond the fences. Texas Parks & Wildlife Department issued a statement claiming that Section 41 of HB 12 will create a "wildlife sanctuary" out of our public roads and right of ways. The number of animals killed by automobiles alone on our public roads and right of ways is enough to dispel this myth. Automobiles kill more Reptiles and Amphibians on our roads and right of ways than can ever be collected. Herpetologists save many of these same animals by helping them get off the road safely. It is now illegal to salvage dead animals for Museum and University preserved collections.

We were blindsided by the legislation. We never saw this coming, and we had a dialogue with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Thousands of concerned Herpetologists from Texas and the rest of the nation telephoned Representatives, also sending letters, faxes, and emails in protest of Texas C.S. HB 2414. We have a voice and we wanted to be heard. We succeeded in garnering an amendment, which would exclude collection of Reptiles, Amphibians, and insects courtesy of Representative Tracy King, District 80. Texas C.S.HB 2414 was then passed unanimously by the House. Due to time constraints, or more likely pressure from Representative Harvey Hilderbran at the end of the session, HB 2414 then died in the Senate Natural Resources Committee without ever being heard or voted on.

This was Representative Hilderbran's baby. Make no mistake about that. The man is Chair of Culture, Recreation, & Tourism committee, on the Natural Resources committee, and a champion for all things Texas Parks and Wildlife. He worked very hard and very close with TP&W on HB 12. The Austin American Statesman reported that Representative Hilderbran was interested in the TP&W Executive Director's position opening up with Bob Cook's retirement on Aug 31st. For years Hilderbran served as Executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Association, a three decade old coalition of exotic hoof stock breeders and game ranchers intent of protecting the rights of their members to raise animals and the rights of their paying customers to kill them (page 97, Animal Underworld: America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species by Alan Greene).

HB 12, the unrelated and popular Parks funding bill, passed the House and Senate but had to go to a conference committee to resolve differences between the House and Senate version. Neither the senate or house version of HB 12 had any of the HB 2414 text at that time.

According to the Guide to Texas Legislative Information (GTLI): A conference committee's charge is limited to reconciling differences between the two chambers, and the committee, unless so directed, may not alter, amend, or omit text that is not in disagreement. Nor may the committee add text on any matter that is not in disagreement or that is not included in either version of the bill in question.

Representative Harvey Hilderbran got around this limitation by authoring, introducing and passing HR 2912 in the House of Representatives and getting State Senator Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) to author, introduce, and pass SR 1195 in the State Senate. HR 2912 and SR 1195 gave the Conference Committee on HB 12 permission to add section 44 (the pre-amendment version of HB 2414), despite the fact that this text was defeated via amendment in the House and was never voted on in the Senate, by stating the following:

(9) House Rule 13, Section 9, is suspended to permit the
committee to amend Subchapter A, Chapter 62, Parks and Wildlife
Code, by adding Section 62.0031 to read as follows:
PROHIBITED. (a) Except as provided by Subsection (b), a person may
not hunt a wild animal or bird when the person is on a public road or
(b) This section does not apply to the trapping of a raptor
for educational or sporting purposes as provided by Chapter 49.
Explanation: The change is necessary to prohibit certain
persons from hunting a wild animal or bird when the person is on a
public road or right-of-way.

The Conference Committee on HB 12, chaired by Harvey Hilderbran and Craig Estes then drafted the Conference Committee Report that drastically changed HB 12. The revised bill was then pushed through the House and Senate in the end of session rush. The end result is that a ban on collecting Reptiles and Amphibians from public roads and right of ways that was defeated by amendment in the House and killed in the Senate by committee delays, was snuck into another bill via riders and passed into law after being signed by the Governor.

These actions by Hilderbran and Estes thwarted the intent the Texas House, ignored the inaction of the Senate, and blind-sided thousands of Texas hobbyist and sportsmen to push the agenda of Representative Harvey Hilderbran. I take exception to that. Here we have someone who should have a very keen understanding of what is at issue, but seems intent on taking away our rights instead. It also illustrates the need for a better understanding of Texas' Herpetofauna by both the legislators and TP&W.

Why should Herpetologists have access to public roads and right of ways? Why not? Limiting Snake Hunters to private land is the same as telling Fishermen that they can only fish on private Lakes and Ponds. Snake hunting is a sport. It is more about the thrill of the chase than the actual capture. In fact not everyone out on those roads at night are exploiting our wildlife resources. Even if they take a few snakes home within the guidelines set forth by Texas Parks and Wildlife they are no different in that respect than a fisherman taking home fish, or a Deer Hunters taking home Deer. Each is a wildlife resource.

Texas, Parks and Wildlife would like us to acquire leases and private land to pursue our hobby, but is that a viable solution for everyone? Most species of Reptiles and Amphibians in the Trans Pecos region are nocturnal. This factor alone significantly differentiates non-game hunters from game hunters and points to the reasons why it is inherently safer to hunt non-game species on public roads and right of ways. Hunting vast tracts of private land at night in the Trans Pecos will put non-game hunters at risk to broken bones from falling in rugged terrain, flash flood, Bear, Mountain Lion, venomous snake bite by restricted access to hospitals, and smugglers of humans and drugs.

Most Herpetologists do not carry weapons and such areas are only suitable for experienced and armed expert Field Herpetologists hunting in pairs or groups. Remote regions are unsuitable for handicapped, very young or very old Herpetologists.

Road cruising in Texas is a safe, fun, time honored family tradition enjoyed by handicapped, very young and very old, which instills a deeper appreciation not only for reptiles and amphibians, but all nocturnal wildlife.

Texas has a rich and diverse Herpetofauna, and you have to look at other southwestern states for a comparison. In New Mexico collecting Reptiles and Amphibians from the road surface is written into law as a legal means of take. Arizona and California also allow collection of Reptiles and Amphibians from the roads and right of ways. Additionally, each of these states allows collecting of Reptiles and Amphibians on large parcels of State and Federally owned land (BLM and otherwise). Texas has no such land available to Herpetologists.

TP&W Executive Director Bob Cook said it best in his own words "How many people don't have a place to go other than a state park or a local park or a national park?" Cook asks. He then adds, "That's a big issue, and getting bigger every day. A smaller and smaller percentage of our people own land and have a place to go. We've got a generation of kids growing up who, along with their parents, have been so disconnected from the outdoors that they're almost afraid to go outside as opposed to when we were kids and were told to go out and find something to do".

There are other differences. Herpetologists don't kill reptiles and amphibians, preferring to keep and breed them at home. We sell babies and trade in these animals, and that seems to be a bone of contention. Ironically, it would be much easier to manage this resource if we were killing the snakes to eat them. We are taxpayers, and we have as much right to use the roads and right of ways as a person on a bicycle, a jogger, photographer, or person picking flowers on the right of way.

The major pushes behind the bill were concerns over safety and commercialization (selling Reptiles and Amphibians). We don't mind taking a proactive approach to safety. You can never be too safe. Having said that there is no data in existence to suggest that a Herpetologist has caused or been involved in a major accident or fatality in over 60 years. In contrast, the Texas Parks and Wildlife 2006 Texas Hunting Accidents Analysis provides data on 2.649 hunting accidents over a 30 year period including 536 fatal accidents. According to the data 7 accidents involved Misc. species (snake, raccoon, ram) over a 3-year period (2004 - 2006) and all 2,649 accidents resulted from discharge of a firearm or bow while hunting.

The commercial aspect of the sport consists of people who sell captive born and bred offspring, known as breeders. These people generally only collect what they need to sustain a breeding colony of animals and infuse new blood occasionally. This is the largest group of people represented at night on our back roads.

There are also folks known as commercial collectors. They pick up most of the animals they see for the purpose of resale. They fuel the pet trade and the supply of breeders to folks who simply can't catch their own animals. Without these commercial collectors supply of some animals would dwindle and market prices for these animals would climb with the increased demand. There is currently a very natural balance between the market prices for these animals and the supply coming out of the wild. Most are available as captive born, healthy, and feeding babies much cheaper than the gas, food, and lodging it takes to collect one. This is what you want. You don't want these animals to be so valuable that they create a huge demand with inflated prices. That fuels the trade in wild caught animals.

Licensing requirements based on the number of animals in possession differentiate the commercial collectors from the hobbyists / breeders in the field, but the breeder numbers get mixed into the numbers for commercial collectors in the data collected by Texas Parks and Wildlife. The data is not accurate. It doesn't show the true numbers of Reptiles and Amphibians coming out of the wild, but it does show some very alarming data. The number of Rattlesnakes and Turtles being taken from Texas will raise any eyebrow. Well I'm mad. Certainly we don't support the take of 300,000 freshwater Turtles for the Asian food market, nor do we condone the take of 84,000 plus Rattlesnakes in three years for Rattlesnake round-ups. More regulation is required in regard to the commercial trade in non-game species while seeking a middle ground for hobbyist collectors with an allowance for the sale of captive bred offspring, and enabling them to both fund and provide a comprehensive data source for TP&WD non-game management plans to ensure sustainable harvest in reasonable numbers well into the future without economic or enforcement hardship.

What economic and enforcement hardship you ask? There are more implications in this bill than meet the eye.

Section 44 of HB 12 imposes a financial burden on already struggling rural communities that depend on tourist dollars from Reptile Hobbyists. The majority of the impacted economies are small communities in the Trans Pecos region of west Texas. These are collectively the largest counties in Texas with the lowest population per acre and per-capita income. The towns of Langtry, Comstock, Marathon, Del Rio, Freer, Sweetwater, Terlingua, Sanderson and Alpine among many others stand to lose a significant revenue stream. Sanderson in particular is in peril without this seasonal income. The majority of non-game species collectors only keep a few animals for personal use and breeding. Their expenditures in hunting licenses, gas, food and lodging far outweigh any income from the sale of captive bred animals. It might help to remember that Representative Hilderbran is the Chair of the Culture, Recreation, & Tourism committee.

Further, none of the current Trans Pecos Game Wardens in the field were consulted prior to the introduction of this legislation. Moving non-game hunters onto vast tracts of undisturbed private land will make law enforcement impractical in the least. Prior to Section 44 of HB 12 Game Wardens in the Field knew exactly where to go to check on non-game hunters and they could take care of business very efficiently. In order for the new legislation to be enforced, many more field wardens will be required and they will be exposed to danger inherent with the remote SW Border regions at night, the same dangers these non-game collectors are facing.

Section 44 of HB 12 adversely affects the Herpetology Departments at every Texas College and University. Recent advances in DNA research warrant the collection of new museum specimens as most existing specimens were preserved in formalin, which renders the DNA useless. Without access to specimens collected from public roads and right of ways the number of specimens available for study will be reduced dramatically since most of these specimens are donated by hobbyist Herpetologists. Ironically this will have a long-term negative effect not only on the Science of Herpetology but also on the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

The real travesty of this law will be the dearth of temporal herpetological records from around the state. How will we, or TP&WD be able to assess the status of herp populations around the state? Open a field guide, and you'll find range maps - maps based (for the most part) solely on specimens collected and deposited into natural history collections. As access to private land has diminished, numbers of specimens collected from roadways/right-of-ways and deposited into collections have increased. Geographic range extensions have increasingly come from road-collected animals in Texas. Additionally, range maps tell only one side of the story, the overall distribution of a given species. We know very little about the temporal distribution (or persistence) of herp species in Texas. Roads and rights-of-way allowed amateurs and professionals alike to sample habitats around the state for such records. Herpetology through collection of herps on public land such as public roads has now become something only "professionals" are allowed to do via Scientific Collecting Permits. This is very depressing and sad, especially in our quest for knowledge of Texas natural history.

Historically Herpetologists and TP&W have had a rocky relationship. We feel like we've been persecuted for over 30 years stemming from unwarranted protection of certain species from 1977 - 1987, and recent controversy regarding using a motor vehicle to aid in the collection of non-game species from public roads and right of ways. We want to be recognized as a legitimate segment of Texas sportsmen, right alongside Deer Hunters and Fishermen. We would like TP&W to hire more Herpetologists and devote more time, energy, and resources for non-game species. We'd like tighter restrictions on commercial take while finding a middle ground for Hobbyist collectors with an allowance for selling captive born babies. Finally, we'd like to be involved in drafting regulations that work for everyone from the Legislators, TP&W, the general public, the Herpetologists, and most importantly the Reptiles and Amphibians that we all love.