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A patterned black and gray snake blends in to the strewn, dark pine needles on the forest floor.
Information icon Louisiana pinesnake. Photo by Michael Sealy, USFWS.

Proposed listing of the Louisiana pinesnake under the Endangered Species Act, and the proposed 4(d) exemption rule

What action is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service taking?

The Service is reopening the public comment period on its October 2016 proposal to list the Louisiana pinesnake as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Service at the same time is proposing a series of exemptions to land management activities in what is called a “4(d) rule” because it refers to Section 4(d) of the ESA. It will be a 60-day comment period for citizens to share views on both the proposed listing and the proposed exemptions.

What is the Louisiana pinesnake and where can you find them?

Reaching up to nearly five feet long, Louisiana pinesnakes are black, brown, and russet colored. 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 48 to 56 inches long. Louisiana pinesnakes are egg-laying constrictors with small heads and pointed snouts, and are good burrowers.

The Louisiana pinesnake is well-adapted to the longleaf pine forests. It is found in the pine forests of north and central Louisiana and east Texas. They primarily eat 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 consumed by the pocket gopher.

Why is the Service proposing to list the Louisiana pinesnake as threatened?

The Service used the best scientific information available to assess the status and threats of the Louisiana pinesnake and found that it meets the definition of a threatened species. The pinesnake’s range and numbers have declined primarily because of the loss, degradation, and fragmentation of suitable habitat. The longleaf pine ecosystem historically inhabited by the Louisiana pinesnake has been reduced by about 96 percent across its historical range. Remaining forest is typically fire suppressed, leading to increased shrub growth and reduced vegetation . In addition, the pinesnake reproduces slowly, and its populations are already small, isolated, and genetically compromised. Conservation agencies, non-profit conservation groups, and businesses are taking steps to reverse that habitat decline. The pinesnake’s habitat continues to be threatened by human activities. Threats to the Louisiana pinesnake include mortality from vehicle strikes and predators, such as raccoons and red-tailed hawks. The intentional killing of snakes by humans, introduced predators, and disease also pose potential threats to the Louisiana pinesnake.

What would a 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 included here a series of exempted activities in an effort to balance the needs of the pinesnake with the importance of keeping working lands working. In addition to those exemptions, 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. Most landowners whose property is outside the area occupied by the Louisiana pinesnake will see no change in how they currently manage their property.

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 those that provide conservation benefits for the species. This targeted approach can reduce regulatory burdens by allowing some activities that do not significantly harm the species to continue, while focusing our efforts on the threats that slow the species’ recovery.

Take is a term broadly meaning harm, including killing, injuring, or harassing a listed species. The exemptions to prohibit take of the species would be offered in exchange for managing the longleaf pine forest to benefit the snake while minimizing or avoiding impacts to the snake and its pocket gopher prey. These actions include prescribed burning and lower density planting, both of which can enhance vegetation preferred by the pocket gopher.

Exemptions include, but are not limited to:

  • Most forestry activities, including tree thinning, harvest, and planting, that maintain lands in a forested condition.
  • 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.

What would a listing mean for federal agencies?

Federal agencies have an obligation to conserve listed plants and animals, as well as their critical habitat. 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. Therefore, federal agencies must consult with the Service for an activity involving federal funding or federal permits on public or private land.

What would a 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. If the Louisiana pinesnake is listed, some activities, such as bedding or other intensive mechanical site preparation, which can impact the Louisiana pinesnake where it occurs, may be prohibited or require consultation with the Service. Most landowners whose property is outside the area occupied by the Louisiana pinesnake will see minimal to no change in how they currently manage their forest if the species were to be listed.

What has the Service done to help this species before proposing it for 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.

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.

Who can I contact for more information?

For more information regarding the listing proposal and the proposed 4(d) rule for the Louisiana pinesnake, please contact the Louisiana Ecological Services Office at 337-291-3100, or lafayette@fws.gov. Media representatives should contact Phil Kloer at either Philip_Kloer@fws.gov, or 404-679-7299.

Read the press release for this announcement.

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