For Immediate Release
December 3, 1999

Contact: Tom MacKenzie 404/679-7291

KILLING OF THREATENED EASTERN INDIGO SNAKE

HIGHLIGHTS NEED FOR ENDANGERED SPECIES EDUCATION

photo by Dr. Dan W.Speake

The September killing of an eastern indigo snake by children in a small south Georgia town has led state and federal wildlife officials to step-up education efforts about this federally protected species.

Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources confirmed that it was a dead eastern indigo snake held by children in a photograph on the front page of the Alma Times in late September.

"These kids probably did not know what the snake was," said Pat McIntosh, Special Agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who investigates federal wildlife crimes. "They likely didn't realize that it was illegal to kill this threatened species."

The federally protected eastern indigo snake, which used to range from South Carolina through Florida and west to southeastern Mississippi, is found today only in south Georgia and much of Florida. This non-venomous snake has been protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act since 1978. Under the Act it is illegal to kill, harm or harass any endangered species, including the eastern indigo snake. The eastern indigo snake is also protected under Georgia's Endangered Wildlife Act. According to McIntosh, the kids who killed the snake will not face federal charges.

"We're not going to prosecute kids, but we are going to turn this into an educational opportunity," said McIntosh. "We have to do whatever we can to protect this species, and that means making sure that this type of thing doesn't happen again."

"If an adult had killed that snake, he or she would be subject to prosecution under the Federal Endangered Species Act," McIntosh said. "We want to avoid having to go that route, so making sure people understand about endangered species is important." The maximum penalty for killing a species protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act is one year in jail and a $50,000 fine.

The eastern indigo snake is the longest snake in North America, with a maximum total length of 8 ½ feet. The eastern indigo is a very stout snake, with iridescent blue-black coloring and no pattern on the body, although the chin and throat may have reddish or cream coloration.

The eastern indigo snake is sometimes confused with the black racer, the most common black snake in south Georgia. However, the black racer is dull black and is much more slender than an eastern indigo snake. Neither snake is venomous, and both are protected under Georgia law. According to John Jensen, State Herpetologist for Georgia, all non-venomous snakes are protected under state law.

Eastern indigo snakes are most often found in sandy, upland pine habitats. In the winter, they find shelter in gopher tortoise burrows. In the summer, they are often found on the edge of ponds or river swamps near sandhills.

The eastern indigo snake is a top predator whose diet consists of small mammals, birds, young turtles, frogs, and other snakes, including rattlesnakes and cottonmouths.

Because eastern indigo snakes are good natured, the commercial pet trade took a heavy toll on wild populations before federal protection. Federal and state biologists are working to improve the population status of the eastern indigo snake in hopes that it will no longer need protection under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

But two significant threats are keeping populations of the indigo snake from recovering. The first threat comes from loss of suitable places to live, or habitat. Most habitat loss results from conversion of natural longleaf pine areas to silviculture or agriculture areas. The second threat is from humans killing snakes, due in part to a common misunderstanding that all snakes are dangerous. "Most species that have become endangered have done so due primarily to habitat loss. But snakes suffer further from indiscriminate killing by humans," said Jensen. "There is still the old school of thought out there that says ‘The only good snake is a dead snake.'" But according to Jensen, that perception is wrong. "We have to understand the importance of snakes," he said. "As we've learned more about these fascinating animals, we've learned what a significant role snakes play in healthy, natural ecosystems." While many Georgians may not realize the value of protecting indigo snakes, some appreciate and enjoy them. " I love the rascal," said Donald Christmas, a south Georgia landowner, about the eastern indigo snake living on his property. "I've told the kids what he is and to leave him alone. We see him every now and then - he's a beautiful animal."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Georgia Department of Natural Resources, in cooperation with the newly formed Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, or PARC, plan to increase their educational efforts in south Georgia to teach children and adults about the eastern indigo snake and Georgia's other endangered species. `"Many rare snakes are killed because people don't have the knowledge to know whether they are venomous or not. We have to educate the public to identify snakes and to learn the value of snakes," said Jensen, who is also the Southeast Coordinator for PARC.

`The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprised of more than 500 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. In Georgia, the Service manages more than 470,000 acres of Federal land on 10 national wildlife refuges, including Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, and Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries, 64 fish and wildlife management offices, and 78 ecological services field stations across the United States. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, and conserves and restores fish and wildlife habitat. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was established in 1972. The DNR Wildlife Resources Division is charged with managing, protecting and encouraging the wise use of all wildlife, including game and nongame animals and protected plants. The Wildlife Resources Division's Nongame Wildlife-Natural Heritage Section is specifically charged with the conservation and management of Georgia's endangered and other nongame wildlife and plant species. Through ongoing information and outreach programs, DNR's Wildlife Resources Division strives to promote conservation, sportsmanship and safety awareness, while educating the public about sound resources management and the wise use of Georgia's wildlife resources.

Release #: R99-090

 


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