Beaufort News

Rattlesnake could become federally protected species in South Carolina, other states

The Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, a poisonous reptile with a nasty bite, is under consideration to become a federally protected endangered species in South Carolina and neighboring states.

But not everyone is happy about it. Protecting the rattler could restrict development on private land and bring possible fines for people who kill the snake.

"I don't know if you're going to get a lot of sympathy for putting one of the most dangerous snakes in the world on an endangered-species list," said state Rep. Chris Murphy, a Lowcountry Republican and critic of government regulation.

The Eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the 23rd most venomous snake in the world and is the largest rattler on the planet at up to 6 feet in length. But its population has dropped so dramatically environmentalists fear it could become extinct without government help.

"They have absolutely become rare," said Kimberly Andrews, a University of Georgia wildlife researcher who studies the snakes in cooperation with the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy in Bluffton.

"The thing we need most is education and exposure and people knowing they can live with these animals as backyard species and not be at risk."

This week, conservation groups won a victory from the federal government in their effort to save the species, which is native to the coastal South.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday there is "substantial" scientific information the rattler could qualify for protection under the endangered-species act.

Service officials say their next step is to gather public comments over the next two months and launch a study to see if the snake should be protected.

It could be four to five years before the service decides whether to protect the species, according to the service.

Eastern diamondbacks are important because they kill rodents and small mammals that could otherwise overpopulate the countryside.

"If this goes missing, it could have effects we're not even thinking about today," Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Harold Mitchell said. "It has a role to play. The less pieces there are in the ecosystem, the less functional that ecosystem becomes, until it breaks."

Joe Maffo, owner of Critter Management on Hilton Head Island, said he's only received a handful of calls for Eastern diamondbacks over the years.

"I would like to see them protected," he said, adding that copperheads are much more of a problem than rattlers. "It's not a highly dominant snake, not in our area."

Records show some venomous snakes have obtained federal protection under the endangered species act.

Mitchell said that while Eastern diamondback rattlers can have a toxic bite, they are not aggressive toward people. Only a half-dozen people die in the U.S. annually from snake bites, according to a University of Florida report.

"Typically, they don't bite unless really threatened," Mitchell said, noting that the bites are not always poisonous.

In South Carolina, Eastern diamondbacks are found sporadically in both coastal longleaf pine forests and on barrier islands, such as Edisto. They thrive in these areas because small mammals are attracted by the variety of food sources in the open, parklike woodlands.

A loss of habitat from Sunbelt development as well as indiscriminate killing by people have contributed heavily to the snake's decline.

Only about 100,000 of the big snakes exist in the South today, the service says. Before Europeans came to North America, scientists estimate 3 million of the rattlers lived in the South. Their losses are tied to a 97 percent loss in longleaf pine forests as Southern states have developed.

Many snakes have been killed as pests or for sport. Rattlesnake "roundups" in Georgia and Alabama also have contributed to declines in the population, environmentalists say.

Rep. Murphy, of Summerville, and state Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, don't think special protection for the rattlers is warranted, particularly if it hurts industry.

"The timber industry is the No. 1 industry in our state, and if they feel they need to kill these snakes to do their job, they need to do it," Martin said.

Reporter Casey Conley contributed to this report.