Rattlesnake wranglers, armed with gasoline

By Manny Fernandez / New York Times News Service

SWEETWATER, Texas — At the foot of a rocky cliff here, Riley Sawyers knelt down and peered into a small, dark hole, on the prowl for rattlesnakes. One had already lunged at him and bitten his Kevlar-reinforced boot. The venom was still drying, as was the blood on his arm from where the thorny terrain had scratched him, when Sawyers went to fetch the gasoline.

It was not for his dusty SUV. It was for the snakes.

To encourage the rattlesnakes to slither out, Sawyers and his nephew slipped a thin copper tube into the hole and hand-pumped gas fumes into it. In West Texas, as infested with western diamondback rattlesnakes as New York City is with rats, snake hunters like Sawyers have been using gas fumes to flush out their prey for decades.

The practice, known as gassing, has outraged animal rights activists and reptile researchers who say that spraying a toxic substance in wildlife habitats hurts the environment, the snakes, and other animals and insects that live underground or use the same burrows.

In recent months, the opponents of gassing have gained a powerful, unlikely ally: the state of Texas. The state’s wildlife agency is considering banning the use of gas fumes to capture rattlesnakes — a move that would add Texas to the list of more than two dozen states that have partly or completely outlawed the practice, including Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma, all of which share borders with Texas.

In a state that advertises its small government and has fought efforts to protect the dunes sagebrush lizard and other animals as endangered species, the agency’s involvement in snake wranglers’ affairs and its attempt to safeguard a creature that bites and frightens ranchers and others strikes some as anti-Texan. If the ban goes through, snake hunters noted, it will be illegal to use gas to chase out a rattlesnake, but legal to use it to catch a gopher.

The debate over the proposed ban has mushroomed into a larger, stranger battle that has attracted the attention of Gov. Rick Perry and other Republican leaders and underscored the cultural divisions between urban and rural Texas.

“A lot of people that’s bringing this to issue have never encountered a snake,” said Sawyers, 46, a state-licensed snake hunter, tile layer and Marlboro chain-smoker who has a cheerful quote from Davy Crockett next to the snake tattoos on his arm: “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”

“If you’re into the Bible, snakes have intimidated people from the beginning, and I don’t think that’s changed to this day. If they were on your land, would you want restrictions on how we can get them off, or would you want them removed?”

In Houston and other cities, people have barely noticed the proposal to prohibit gassing. When the agency considering the ban, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, held hearings in Fort Worth and San Antonio, just 21 people attended. No one showed up to the one in Houston.

But the hearing in Sweetwater in January drew an estimated 250 people. This town of roughly 11,000, about 40 miles west of Abilene, has unusually high stakes in the matter.

Every March, Sweetwater puts on the country’s largest rattlesnake roundup. (The billboard on the highway into town claims it is the biggest in the world.) The snakes for the event are supplied by wranglers like Sawyers, the majority of whom use gassing to capture rattlesnakes in the rugged, dry terrain nearby. Hunters are paid by the pound; at this year’s roundup, they brought in hundreds of live western diamondbacks, totaling about 3,900 pounds. A ban would make it harder for hunters to collect a large number of snakes, and some believe the hunters would not bother to take part because there would be no financial incentive.

Town leaders and organizers of the roundup said a ban on gassing would end the roundup and its 56-year tradition, or shrink an event that pumps millions of dollars into the local economy every March as thousands of people travel to Sweetwater to shop, eat and visit. The Sweetwater Jaycees, the nonprofit group that organizes the roundup, uses the proceeds to finance community projects, including feeding needy families on Thanksgiving; buying equipment for the fire department; and helping local students, Little League teams and disabled adults.

Though state wildlife officials have been examining the issue of gassing for years, the primary catalyst for the proposed ban was a petition sent to the agency last year signed by 57 zoologists and others, many from out of state. Some of those who signed the petition oppose not only gassing, but the roundup as well.

“The behavior that occurs at the traditional roundups is animal abuse,” said Kristen Leigh Wiley, curator of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo and one of those who signed the petition. “Just because it’s a rattlesnake and not any other animal does not mean that it cannot experience pain or suffering.”

Officials at the Parks and Wildlife Department said their goal was not to end roundups, but to protect the various species besides rattlesnakes that are exposed to the fumes. They pointed to a 1989 study that showed that a 30-minute vapor exposure impaired or killed seven species of snakes, lizards and toads.

“I liken this to fishing with dynamite,” said John Davis, director of the department’s wildlife diversity program. “It’s about a means of take, a means of collection.”