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Amid Much Hissing, Texas Could Impose Ban To Rattle Snake Hunters

Sweetwater Jaycees surrounding rattlesnakes on Diamondback Day at the Texas state Capitol.
John Burnett
Sweetwater Jaycees surrounding rattlesnakes on Diamondback Day at the Texas state Capitol.

There are things that happen in Texas that you just can't make up, such as Diamondback Day at the state Capitol building in Austin. On a cool weekend in February, a dozen of the coiled pit vipers rattle menacingly in an outdoor rotunda where cheerful handlers let visitors pet them.

It's all in good fun. The Jaycees in the West Texas town of Sweetwater bring the snakes down every year as a public relations gimmick to promote their annual rattlesnake roundup, held every March over three days.

This year, there's special urgency. The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department is considering banning the most popular method for catching rattlesnakes: spraying gasoline into their winter dens until the fumes flush them out.

"It's very important for us because it's the method we use primarily to catch volumes of snakes," says Dennis Cumbie, a lifetime Jaycee member and chairman of the milking pit at the Roundup. "Sweetwater's got the world's largest rattlesnake roundup. We average [4,000 to] 5,000 pounds of snakes per year. Without the gassing we wouldn't have those numbers."

Hunters sell rattlesnakes by the pound to the roundup. They're displayed, milked for venom used in medicine, then slaughtered for their skin and their meat. Fried rattlesnake tastes like chewy chicken with lots of bones.

"Y'know, we don't exploit the snakes. We respect the snakes," Cumbie says.

A growing chorus of biologists and animal rights people wants the practice stopped. They say pumping petrochemicals into the ground — even in small doses — is bad for other wildlife. They compare it to fishing with dynamite.

Rob Green's family owns a big ranch west of Fort Worth. As a kid, he says, he used to hunt rattlers with gasoline. Now, he doesn't allow it on his land.

"When you'd squirt gas in there you'd see all kinds of stuff come out," Green says. "You'd see rats and rabbits and armadillos and box turtles. But those animals that can't get away from the fumes there may have been stuff down there that was asphyxiated before they could get out."

According to Cumbie, however, in the nearly 60-year history of the roundup there haven't been any problems with using gasoline to catch the reptiles.

"Some of the same dens have been gassed for 25-30 years with no harm to anything. They've not done any scientific research whatsoever," he says.

Actually, there has been scientific research. But it wasn't conducted in Texas snake dens. John Davis, a biologist with Texas Parks & Wildlife, describes the results of a laboratory study where cave-dwelling bugs were subjected to gas fumes.

Howard Ellett, a champion snake wrangler from Burnet County, Texas, displays one of 60 Western diamondbacks he keeps at his house, ready to sell to customers.
John Burnett / NPR
Howard Ellett, a champion snake wrangler from Burnet County, Texas, displays one of 60 Western diamondbacks he keeps at his house, ready to sell to customers.

"When one exposes rattlesnakes to gasoline vapors, all of the invertebrates exposed to that same level of vapor exposure were killed," Davis says.

The state wildlife agency is going slowly as it considers how to regulate snake hunting, because the Roundup is so important to Sweetwater.

From the Rattlesnake Parade to the crowning of Miss Snake Charmer, it drew 25,000 people and raised some $8 million in 2015.

Banning gassing may not mean the end of rattlesnake roundups, but it would mean fewer snakes.

Howard Ellett says he has been catching rattlesnakes in Burnet County, northwest of Austin, for 25 years.

As one of the state's champion snake wranglers, Ellett knows how easy it is to use unleaded gas and how time-consuming it is to catch diamondbacks the old way — wait until they leave their dens.

"You go snake hunting seven days in a row, one of those days the snakes are gonna be out. It's hard to figure out which day that's gonna be; it's kinda like trying to figure out which is the best day to go fishing," he says.

Currently, 29 states ban the gassing of snake burrows. Texas is the big holdout, but it may not be much longer.

Earlier this year, the Snake Harvest Working Group , appointed by Parks & Wildlife, released its recommendations. A majority agreed that gasoline fumes do pose potential threats to other species and that a statewide ban on gassing may be the answer.

The full state commission is supposed to take action on the gassing of Western diamondbacks when it meets in Austin on May 25.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.