Listing of the Louisiana pinesnake under the ESA, and the Louisiana pinesnake proposed 4(d) ruleApril 5, 2018
What action is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) taking?
The Service is listing the Louisiana pinesnake, a reptile from Louisiana and Texas, as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Service is also proposing a rule under section 4(d) of the ESA that would reduce regulatory burdens while providing for the conservation of the snake. The Service is opening a 30-day comment period on the proposed 4(d) rule for citizens to provide additional scientific information that will assist us in making a final determination.
What is the Louisiana pinesnake and where can you find them?
Reaching up to about five feet long, Louisiana pinesnakes are black, brown and russet. They have a buff to yellowish background color marked with 28 to 38 dark blotches that become better defined towards the tail. The belly is either unmarked or boldly patterned with black markings. An interesting characteristic feature is that its body markings are always conspicuously different at opposite ends of its body. If the head and tail portions are lined up alongside each other, they appear to be from completely different kinds of snakes. Adults range from to 48 to 56 inches in length. Louisiana pinesnakes are egg-laying, non-venomous constrictors with small heads and pointed snouts, and are good burrowers.
The Louisiana pinesnake is well adapted to the longleaf pine ecosystem and is found in the pine forests of north and central Louisiana and east Texas. They primarily prey upon pocket gophers, which contributes to a balanced and functioning ecosystem. The snake is secretive in nature and spends much of its time underground in burrows of its pocket gopher prey. Like their prey, Louisiana pinesnakes are most often found in areas with sandy, well-drained soils in an open-canopied pine forest, with a reduced shrub layer, and dense, herbaceous vegetation.
Why is the Service listing the Louisiana pinesnake as threatened?
The Service used the best scientific information available to assess the status of and threats to the Louisiana pinesnake and found that it meets the definition of a threatened species. This means that it is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The pinesnake’s range and numbers have declined primarily due to loss and fragmentation of suitable habitat. In addition, the pinesnake reproduces slowly, and its populations are already small, isolated, and genetically compromised. The longleaf pine ecosystem that the pinesnake depends on has disappeared from roughly 90 percent of its historical range. Conservation agencies, non-profits, and businesses are taking steps to reverse that habitat decline.
An extensive partnership of federal and state agencies, landowners, businesses, zoos, and conservation organizations also has been taking steps to increase conservation efforts and reduce threats to the Louisiana pinesnake. The partnership effort seeks to reverse the decline of suitable habitat to benefit the Louisiana pinesnake and the hundreds of other species that live in that habitat.
What has the Service done to help this species before listing?
The Service partnered with other federal agencies, state natural resource agencies, and non-governmental organizations to develop a Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA) for the Louisiana pinesnake. The CCA was completed in 2003, revised in 2013, and targeted conservation actions are currently being implemented. The CCA is designed to identify and establish beneficial habitat management actions for the Louisiana pinesnake on federal lands in Louisiana and Texas, and provides a means for the partnering agencies to work cooperatively on projects that avoid and minimize impacts to the pinesnake.
The Service also advised other agencies on management needs for the pinesnake, talked to landowners and industry about its conservation, and funded and participated in surveys and habitat restoration efforts.
A Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has been approved and the Service has met with the Louisiana Forestry Association several times during the last few years to discuss the CCAA and potential enrollment by private landowners. Louisiana Forestry Association members reviewed and commented on the draft conservation measures identified in that CCAA. Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has been granted an “enhancement of survival permit” allowing them to enroll private landowners and extend them coverage under the permit.
What does the threatened listing mean for the private landowner?
The basic responsibility of private landowners having Louisiana pinesnake populations on their lands is to avoid “take” of the species. Take means to harass, harm, kill, trap, capture, or collect a species protected by the ESA. This definition includes land use activities that result in death or harm to the species. For example, direct destruction of the habitat (e.g., clearing longleaf pine stands for non-forest uses such as agriculture or development) in an area where pinesnakes are known to occur would likely result in harm to, or death of, the snake.
The Service can work with the landowner to develop a Habitat Conservation Plan or put in place a Safe Harbor Agreement providing assurances for future management through measures designed to avoid, reduce, and/or mitigate those impacts. The Service can also help private landowners by providing voluntary habitat restoration incentives through the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. Landowners that enter into an agreement through the Partners program can receive technical assistance and financial cost-share to implement habitat restoration actions beneficial to the snake. At the same time, these landowners would receive regulatory predictability through the provisions of the ESA Section 7.
Most landowners whose property is outside the area occupied by the Louisiana pinesnake will see no change in how they currently manage their property.
What does listing mean for federal agencies?
Federal agencies have an obligation to conserve listed fish, wildlife and plants under the ESA. The ESA requires federal agencies to consult with the Service to ensure that any activity they fund, authorize, or carry out will not jeopardize the survival of a listed species. Federal agencies are already consulting with the Service on other federally protected species such as the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker in areas known to be occupied by the Louisiana pinesnake.
What does listing mean to the timber industry?
The same responsibility of private landowners to avoid “take” also applies to timber producers. Some timber producers and other landowners are already implementing conservation activities on their lands such as prescribed burning and lower density planting, both of which can enhance herbaceous vegetation and benefit the Louisiana pinesnake. As a result of this listing, however, some activities, such as bedding or other intensive mechanical site preparation, which can impact the Louisiana pinesnake where it occurs, may be prohibited without a permit or require consultation with the Service.
How would a 4(d) rule change those take prohibitions?
For a threatened species, the Service may use the flexibility provided under Section 4(d) of the ESA to tailor the take prohibitions to what is necessary and advisable for the conservation of the species. This targeted approach can reduce regulatory burdens by allowing some activities that do not significantly harm, or are beneficial to the species to continue, while focusing protection efforts on the threats that are detrimental to the species’ recovery.
The exemptions to the prohibition of take of the species would apply to landowners who manage for open-canopied pine forest to benefit the snake, while minimizing or avoiding impacts to the snake and its primary prey, the pocket gopher. These actions include thinning, harvesting, planting and replanting pines, prescribed burning, and some herbicide applications, which can enhance vegetation preferred by the pocket gopher and the Louisiana pinesnake.
Exemptions include, but are not limited to:
- Most forestry activities, including tree thinning, harvest, planting and replanting pines (both mechanical and hand), and other silvicultural practices that maintain lands in forest land use and that result in the establishment and maintenance of open pine canopy conditions.
- Prescribed burning, including all fire break establishment and maintenance actions, as well as actions taken to control wildfires.
- Herbicide application that is generally targeted for invasive plant species control and mid-story/understory woody vegetation control.
Within specific areas occupied by the Louisiana pinesnake, the activities listed above would be exempted, but subsurface soil disturbance activities (e.g., stumping, disking - except during firebreak establishment and maintenance - root-raking, drum chopping, below-ground shearing, bedding, wind-rowing) would not be exempted under this rule. That doesn’t mean landowners could not implement those kinds of management activities. It just means they need to consult with the Service ahead of time to determine whether those activities would harm the snake, and if so how they can avoid or minimize those impacts.
Does the proposed 4(d) rule apply to federal agencies?
The customized protections under Section 4(d) of the ESA do not remove, or alter in any way, a federal agency’s requirement to ensure any action authorized, funded, or carried out does not jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species or adversely modify or destroy its critical habitat under Section 7 of the ESA.
What can people do to help?
- Support prescribed burning and other habitat management to create and maintain herbaceous ground cover in longleaf pine forests.
- Avoid the killing of snakes; including vehicle caused mortality.
- Do not capture or collect Louisiana pinesnakes.
- Help others understand the harmless and beneficial nature of Louisiana pinesnakes.
- Recognize and appreciate the Louisiana pinesnake as an important part of the longleaf pine ecosystem.