In a West Texas prairie of cactus and mesquite, Riley Sawyers sprays gasoline fumes into a narrow crevice in the ground, hoping to drive slumbering rattlesnakes to the surface. His equipment isn’t fancy, just a common pesticide canister attached to a long, thin copper tube. The smell of gasoline fills the air, but no snakes emerge on a 45-degree January day, disappointing Sawyers, a ponytailed tile mason who rounds up snakes on the side. Sawyers says that on a good day he’s captured as many as 56, grabbing them with 4-foot tongs as they emerge for air. It’s a sport revered in rural Texas—especially in Sweetwater, 200 miles west of Dallas, where every March thousands of snakes that hunters capture in the first three months of the year are brought to the Rattlesnake Round-Up to be slaughtered and sold for meat, leather, and venom vaccines. Sawyers’s snake-wrangling skills have made him something of a celebrity in Sweetwater and got him a recurring part on the Animal Planet reality show Rattlesnake Republic, where teams of Texans compete to round up the vipers.
The hunt may soon become a lot more challenging. Texas environmental officials want to join 29 states that have already banned the use of noxious substances to collect or harass nongame wildlife, citing evidence that gassing, as it’s called, endangers at least 26 animals and insect species sharing underground caverns with snakes. “The research shows quite a compelling case for biological concern,” says John Davis, director of Texas’s wildlife diversity program. “We’re trying to do everything we can to keep species healthy.”
Standing up for endangered species is unusual in Texas, where politicians have campaigned to stop federal efforts to protect the sand dune lizard, the lesser prairie chicken, and other animals whose habitats got in the way of oil and gas drilling. When he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, Governor Rick Perry recommended reforming the Endangered Species Act to help boost U.S. energy production. It’s not clear whether the proposed gassing ban has his support. The governor expects environmental officials “to take all facts into consideration before making their decision” on whether to ban the practice in March, says Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed.
“There’s no studies in this part of the country showing that we are damaging anything,” says Dennis Cumbie, a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee in Sweetwater who has organized opposition to the state’s plan. “The tree huggers or environmentalists—whatever you call them—think we’re hurting stuff. They are out to get us.” Davis counters that decades of research in Texas and states around the country have firmly established the toxic effects of gas vapors on snakes and other species.
More than 150 people packed into a Jan. 17 public forum in Sweetwater, where for two and a half hours citizens and representatives of the local Chamber of Commerce angrily made the case against the proposal. In Sweetwater, captured snakes provide cash and peace of mind. Hunters brought more than 1,000 vipers weighing up to 5 pounds to last year’s Rattlesnake Round-Up, where the festival’s sponsor, the Junior Chamber of Commerce, bought 2,160 pounds of live snakes at $13 a pound. Some snakes were kept alive and sold to dealers. Most were killed—a pneumatic hammer blow between the eyes, then the head chopped off—and eaten by festival-goers, who consumed about 1,000 pounds of fried rattler. “Everyone is excited when the roundup comes around, because it helps solve our problems,” says Jim Wilks, a Sweetwater lawyer and rancher who, like many others in the area, has lost cattle to snakebites. Each year a friend captures as many as 20 rattlesnakes on Wilks’s ranch to sell at the festival, he says.
A gassing ban would cut the number of rattlesnakes captured by as much as 80 percent, leading to a population explosion, says Sawyers, who plans to hunt for snakes almost every day in the weeks before the festival. “It’s not a rare occasion for people in West Texas to come across a rattlesnake in their backyard or crossing a street,” says Sweetwater Mayor Greg Wortham, who opposes a ban. “When someone’s 8-year-old daughter walks across the patio and has to step over a rattlesnake, that’s pretty serious.”