- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2006

CROSS FORK, Pa.

About halfway down a steep mountain valley, amid sun-warmed rocks and a tree stump, three timber rattlesnakes lay coiled, soaking up the midmorning sun.

Unafraid, Shane Hahn moves in.

With a tool that looks like a golf club with a hook, he gently grabs the venomous snake near its head, using his other hand to lift its thick body. About 45 inches long, it has a black head and eyes, with dark cross bands — a black phase rattlesnake.

A member of the Keystone Reptile Club, Mr. Hahn, of Waynesboro, is demonstrating the sport of snake hunting on the weekend of the 34th annual Cross Fork Snake Hunt, an event he and his companions are helping to run.

Organized hunts, in which snakes are caught, measured and later released, are big fundraisers for a few volunteer fire departments, mostly in northern Pennsylvania. Seven hunts were permitted by the state this season, which ended July 31 — five by fire departments, two by sports clubs.

The state Fish and Boat Commission is worried about declining numbers of timber rattlesnakes, which are considered “species of concern,” and has approved new restrictions.

“The whole plan here is to strike a balance between a recreational use and trying to allow the species to continue,” said Dan Tredinnick, spokesman for the fish commission.

The state increased permit fees from $5 to $25 for residents and $50 for nonresidents, figuring fewer people will hunt snakes; and established a 42-inch minimum length in hopes of protecting smaller females.

Last year, 1,126 persons obtained permits to hunt snakes and 160 were taken. Participants in organized hunts cannot kill snakes, though state law allows hunters to get a permit to kill one a year. The state does not have statistics on how many were killed or kept in captivity.

Although only a few dozen or so people may take part in an organized hunt, the weekend festivals can draw several thousand people. Prizes are given for categories including longest rattlesnake (53 inches was the longest of 21 rattlesnakes brought in this year at Cross Fork), most rattles (21 this year) and the heaviest pair (6 pounds, 12 ounces this year).

Although hunt organizers feared a proposed ban to end sacking contests would hurt fundraising, the agency did not ban the contests. Even so, they are falling by the wayside.

Bill Wheeler Jr., president of the Keystone Reptile Club, which runs about half of the organized hunts, including Cross Fork, said he ended the contests last year because of liability concerns and because he realized they sent the wrong message about the treatment of the snakes.

In sacking contests, teams of two enter a pen filled with western diamondback rattlesnakes — the state long ago stopped the use of native snakes — to see which team can bag them the fastest. One person holds open a sack, and the other person tosses the snakes inside. Participants have been bitten.

Snake-hunt critics have found the sacking contests particularly troubling.

“If there is one deplorable element to a snake hunt in my mind, it’s sacking,” said Jack Hubley, a wildlife lecturer and host of a weekly nature feature for WGAL-TV in Lancaster.

He said the contests “reduce a magnificent animal to a score on a card. And the animal itself is completely lost.” The snakes also can get injured.

Organized rattlesnake hunts “were born in an age when we were trying to rid the world of these noxious beasts,” said Mr. Hubley, who thinks the proposed regulatory changes are a step in the right direction.

“If I get one person to stop killing every snake they see in their yard, I think we’ve done a good thing,” Mr. Wheeler said.

At the hunts, snakes are measured and frequently fitted by fish commission staff with a small tag containing information on size, location and date of capture should they be recaptured. Hunters have one other responsibility.

“We want all the snakes taken [back] where they got ‘em,” Mr. Wheeler said. “The same rock, the same log — not out the window because you’re in the same township.”

Heidi Prescott, senior vice president of campaigns for the Humane Society of the United States, applauded Pennsylvania’s efforts to further restrict snake hunting but said the group would like to see roundups ended.

Though Pennsylvania does not let snakes be killed during organized hunts — unlike those held in states such as Texas and Oklahoma — Miss Prescott said she worries some hunters do not return the snakes to their point of capture, damaging the ecosystem.

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