Feds are reconsidering “endangered” status for native snake disappearing from southern states

The US government surprised legal experts and scientists alike when it dropped a push four years ago to protect the southern hognose snake under the Endangered Species Act.

But the snake’s call for protection is now back on the table.

It couldn’t come sooner for the tiny elf-nosed snake, whose numbers have declined by at least 60%. Housing developments have replaced much of the longleaf snake pine forest habitat. In Alabama and Mississippi, southern hognose snakes have already disappeared from the landscape.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to reevaluate the snake’s endangered species status, according to a June 1 settlement agreement reached with the Center for Biological Diversity. The center filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in January challenging the 2019 decision.

Neglected and underfunded, barely endangered, SC species

The service announced in 2015 that, based on the best science available, protections for the baby snake “may be warranted.” Four years later, during the Trump administration, the service reversed course, denying endangered species status and the protections that come with it.

The settlement agreement does not specify the factors that led to the government’s overthrow.

A spokeswoman for the service’s South East regional office told The Post and Courier that “the service has determined it is prudent to reassess the species’ status under the Endangered Species Act. The 12-month new discovery will build on the best scientific results and commercial data available and will take into account any efforts made by States to protect the species”.

According to Chelsea Stewart-Fusek, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, the hognose snake is one of many “unscientific” listing decisions made during the Trump administration. Her organization disputed the case of southern hognose snakes and settled a similar case in April involving the Barren’s darter, a freshwater fish native to Tennessee, which she said protections were also “erroneously denied ” in 2019.

The center filed lawsuits for the West Coast Fisherman, the Kirtland Serpent, and the Eastern Hellbender. The fisherman is a relative of the mink that lives in what is left of ancient forests in the northwest. The Kirtland snake was once common on the American prairies. And the ruler of hell is a giant salamander native to South Carolina and 14 other states.

All have been denied protection under the Trump administration.

The Post and Courier has previously reported instances where green groups suspect that politics influenced how species were added to or removed from threatened and endangered species lists.

In one example, internal emails among service employees indicated that political goals motivated a 2020 proposal to delist the threatened dwarf-flowered heartleaf, a tiny plant native to the Carolinas.

US law requires that the best available science be used in every decision, and green groups have taken to the courts to force the government to let science lead.

“The lawsuits provide that much needed pressure,” Stewart-Fusek said.

The feds want to remove the SC plant from the list of

The southern hognose snake was once common in the vast longleaf pine forests that stretched from southern Virginia to Texas. More than 97 percent of that habitat has been destroyed, leaving only small islands of habitat remaining, scattered across the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. These states are the only places where the species still persists, feasting on tiny toads in the summer and burrowing deep into leaf litter during controlled burns.

South Carolina took action years ago to protect the southern hognose snake, listing it as a “species of highest priority” under the state’s wildlife action plan in 2015. The species is also listed as threatened by conservation laws of South Carolina.

But even these conservation efforts are likely overdue. Scientists didn’t have a clear idea of ​​how many snakes were out there and whether those numbers were changing until the early 2000s.

South Carolina Department of Natural Resources officials have welcomed the news that the snake’s federal listing is being considered again.

We will continue to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to provide the latest information to make an informed listing decision,” said Anna Smith, wildlife biologist for DNR.

The southern hognose snake is generally harmless. When threatened, the snake swells up to appear larger. Sometimes he hisses. As a last resort, its 24-inch long body comes to a standstill.

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“The hognose snake will fall over and play dead,” Jacob Zadik, co-chair of SC Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, told The Post and Courier. “Their defensive saga is an excellent story that debunks myths that snakes are aggressive and intent on hurting people.”

But the snake is commonly mistaken for a threat. Reprisal killings are common. Other human threats include climate change, vehicle collisions, and harvesting for the pet trade.

Federal officials have until August 27, 2025 to review the science again and decide whether the southern hognose snake earns a spot on the threatened and endangered species list.

Every Friday, the Rising Waters newsletter offers insight into the latest environmental issues impacting the Lowcountry and the rest of the South.

Follow Clare Fieseler on Twitter @clarefieseler.

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