The City of Opp's Rattlesnake Rodeo website doesn't have much useful information on the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (it doesn't even mention the species by name), but it does offer sound advice regarding what to do if you encounter one: "avoid contact with rattlesnakes by remaining observant and not approaching the animals." Despite that, the city has just announced a new policy of paying the general public a bounty of $8 per foot for eastern diamondback rattlesnakes over 2 feet long, or $100 for any snake over 5 feet long. Mayor H.D. Edgar is quoted saying, "We've been paying our hunters in the past, but a lot of them have quit. We've got to have a new source of snakes for the snake shows, so everyone thought this would be a good idea to get the public involved once again." I wonder if "everyone" included the city attorney, because it would seem that the city is setting itself up for a huge liability exposure. And the city needs rattlesnakes for what, exactly? Two things only: to be put on display and to be "raced." The snakes are actually playing less and less of a role in this popular annual event. Of course they don't need wild-caught rattlesnakes to have a buck-dance contest, a car race, or a concert. A few captive snakes could be brought out each year for display and attendance would not suffer.
For decades the standard snake hunting technique was to introduce gasoline fumes into gopher tortoise burrows to drive out rattlesnakes. This effective but extremely harmful practice is now illegal in Alabama. Rodeo promoters claim this is no longer done, but they don't say how they police themselves. And now the city has opened the field up to anyone, without cautioning against gassing burrows. It's going to be happening, no question.
A growing number of people are calling for this event to change. At the Rodeo, children are seeing large numbers of a declining species of native wildlife being rounded up, mistreated, and slaughtered (behind the scenes; they used to chop off heads in public but no longer) for no reason other than it's a snake. This is not how to instill a respect for nature in the next generation. Other towns that had snake rodeos, such as Fitzgerald, Georgia and San Antonio Florida, have successfully shifted the emphasis of their event away from the wild snake roundup. At the San Antonio Rattlesnake Festival, education presentations feature snakes that are not abused or harassed, the crowd is entertained, and children go home with a new respect for wildlife. That event draws 30,000 visitors and raises thousands of dollars for local nonprofits.
Opp City Planner Don Childre has long defended the wild snake hunt by claiming the snakes are still as common as ever. His credibility went out the window, however, when he was quoted in yesterday's Opp News falsely stating that rattlesnakes bear young several times a year for an annual average of 100 young! In fact, diamondbacks bear young once in the late summer, with an average litter of about a dozen young. Then he falsely equates the regulated harvest of game species to the unregulated take of rattlesnakes: "We hunt [gray squirrels and whitetail deer] and no one says anything, but they make a lot of noise about snake hunting for some reason." See what he did there? Using that logic, I suppose he'd say we can also have unregulated take on sea turtles, because one female can produce over 500 hatchlings in a year.
Eastern diamondbacks are declining primarily due to habitat degradation, not snake roundups, but the latter is not helping. Their environmental impact has been documented by Dr. D. Bruce Means of Florida State University and the Coastal Plains Institute here (PDF).
It's either time for the State of Alabama to step up and regulate the take of rattlesnakes for such purposes, or for Opp to change its annual event to a wildlife appreciation festival. By doing so they would continue to bring in revenue to the local economy while educating young people and conserving the diversity of nature that we are so fortunate to have in this part of the country.