Timber Rattlesnakes in Vermont and New York: Biology, History and the Fate of and Endangered Species.
The University Press of New England, Hanover and London
This book is a fascinating account of the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) in the most northerly portion if its range. The narrative explores the ecology, fears, politics, bounty systems, and modern efforts at conservation of this maligned species, which once inhabited one third of the area of the lower 48 states. Large portions are now unoccupied and other portions are now isolated dots on a map. In spite of over a century of persecution, the species is not federally listed and both states had bounty systems in place until the early 1970s. New York and Vermont now protect rattlesnakes, but habitat loss and incidental killing and still common.
Furman begins with a broad, informative account of the species biology including size, longevity, prey preferences and demography (Chapters 1 and 2). Few researchers have studied this species in any depth, but, because of the 30-year efforts of Professor William S. Brown of Skidmore College, it turns out that we know a great deal more about timber rattlers in this region than in many others. Perhaps the most relevant finding is that individuals reach sexual maturity later, and females produce litters less often, than most populations elsewhere. Given the short growing season in the Adirondacks, this is no surprise. But it also means that the loss of a few adult females can have large demographic consequences. Furman's accounts of the species' abilities to smell, to sense prey through the heat receptors in their facial pits, and of females (who mate in summer) to store sperm and fertilize their eggs the next spring are all quite informative for the general reader. His accounts of the talus slopes in which snakes gather--which also make them easy to persecute--are equally illustrative, as is what happens when a snake bites, and survivors' accounts of some who were bitten (Chapters 3 and 4).
But as someone who knows a fair amount about snakes, these are not the parts of the book that most piqued my interests most. In fact, Chapters 5 through 10 get into many issues that make formerly common species rare, and they should be eye-opening to all. The snake oil industry of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which caused commercial depletion of this and other rattlesnake species, is explored in Chapter 5, as is the recent and disturbing demand for poisonous snakes in the pet trade. Bounty hunting is taken up in Chapter 6 and it is here where human foible is most pronounced. The three counties in Adirondack New York that have rattlesnakes, and the adjacent county in Vermont, all had bounties; like bounties everywhere, they were subject to fraud and the scams were many and ingenious. Bounties were only paid for snakes killed within that jurisdiction by residents, but little stopped people from killing them elsewhere and bringing them home for payment. Some non-residents killed snakes and had accomplices turn them in for payment. Since bounties were generally higher in New York than in Vermont, some simply crossed state lines. A few who were caught doing so were charged under the Lacy Act, but jail sentences for such offences are generally very short. And so it went until both States outlawed all wildlife bounties in the 1970s.
Chapter 7, 8 and 9 alone are worth the read for their accounts of colorful characters who spent decades hunting rattlers. That of the father-daughter team of Lester and Carol Reed (Chapter 7)--third and fourth generation residents whose family was famous for snake oil production--is most illustrative, but that of Bill Galick, a Vermont native, relict of the past and modern pioneer (the title of Chapter 8) is even more fascinating. Interviewed by the author shortly before his death in 2005, Galick lived by a code that is hardly imaginable now. His family owned 2000 acres of prime habitat and Bill spent his life hunting deer and small game for food, muskrats and raccoons for furs, and rattlers for bounties and snake oil. He then allowed the Nature Conservancy to buy his land, where he lived until his death, and it is now fully protected. Art Moore (Chapter 9), another colorful character of the north woods, was the most prolific bounty hunter ever. Moore had the intense mind of a scientist and endurance of a marathon runner, both of which he used to find snakes. Lest anyone pass judgment, these people hunted rattlers when it was legal and encouraged by the States. When that changed, they became conservationists in their own right and Furman, who interviewed them all, writes with genuine respect and admiration for their tenacity and integrity.
Chapter 10 is where Furman provides myriad examples of modern conservation programs. Many are from southern New York where the species range is mostly contiguous with larger populations, while others are from the Adirondacks. Easements, land buyouts, snake barriers near housing developments, habitat mitigation, impact statements, and more research are all discussed. But the fact remains that the loss of habitat in the Alleghenies, Catskills and Hudson Highlands goes almost unchecked as urban New Yorkers seek summer homes and more people recreate in state and county parks. So we can be both optimistic and pessimistic about the future of Timber Rattlesnakes in New York and Vermont, but, as Furman shows, there is perhaps more reason for optimism in the twenty-first century. More habitat is now protected, there is much less hunting for commerce, and more people are aware. Some are even tolerant.
This book can be recommended easily to anyone interested in species and habitat conservation. It articulates well the complexity of such endeavors, potential solutions, and the history, beauty and mystery of a portion of heritage we are trying to save.
Professor and Chair
Department of Environmental Studies
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|Publication:||Endangered Species Update|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2007|
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