TALLAHASSEE — Federal officials are considering whether the eastern diamondback rattlesnake should be given endangered species protection.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that it would review the snake's status in response to a petition by three environmental groups and snake expert Bruce Means.
They say the reptile, the world's largest rattlesnake at up to 8 feet in length, is being endangered by loss of habitat and human predation for their meat and skins across the Southeast.
There are no bag limits in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.
"Eastern diamondbacks are rapidly disappearing all across the southeastern United States and in some states they've more or less vanished," said Collette Adkins Giese, a reptile and amphibian specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz. "They need Endangered Species Act protection to survive."
The rattlers once ranged along the coastal lowlands of the Southeast from North Carolina to eastern Louisiana including all of Florida.
Means, president of the Coastal Plains Institute and Land Conservancy in Tallahassee, said the loss of longleaf pine habitat is threatening rattlesnakes as well as other species including the gopher tortoise, red-cockaded woodpecker and indigo snake. No more than 3 percent of the Southeast's longleaf pine forests remain. In some cases timber growers have replaced the longleaf with faster-growing species.
The petitioners acknowledge the rate of the snakes' population decline is unknown but say an analysis of four rattlesnake roundups in the Southeast shows a steady decline in the weights of prize-winning rattlers and the numbers collected.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking comment from state and federal agencies as well as the public before deciding whether threatened or endangered listing is warranted. If not, no action will be taken.
If listing is warranted, the agency then will solicit independent scientific review as well as public comment, a yearlong process, before making a final decision.
A third option is to find listing is warranted but precluded by higher priorities such as proposals to list species at greater risk. Action then would be put on hold.