There's not much in Sweetwater to recommend it to the outside world. People in the dusty little West Texas town seem to enjoy it all right, but for most of the year it's just a wide spot in the road. But on the second weekend in March the town comes to life, the site of the largest rattlesnake roundup in the United States. For one weekend a year it's a town crawling with both rattlesnakes, and the people there to hunt and kill them for the annual rattlesnake roundup.
The snakes are driven out of their holes, collected and killed and if that sounds a little nauseating, it is. But there are a lot of snakes out in West Texas and since 1958 this has been Sweetwater's way of dealing with the problem and collecting a few tourist dollars - killing two birds - or more appropriately two snakes - with one stone. However, the method of the roundup may be changing. Texas Parks and Wildlife officials are floating the idea of banning the gassing of snakes, a move that would alter the whole Sweetwater roundup setup.
Snake roundups have been happening across the country since the late 1920s, but the practice has become increasingly controversial in recent years. Not only do they slaughter a whole lot of snakes -- it's estimated 1 percent of the Texas snake population is picked up during the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup each year -- who are arguably a key part of the food chain and the ecosystem, but the people picking them up generally drive the snakes out of their holes by gassing them.
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After decades tolerating the practice of gassing, Texas Parks and Wildlife is considering a bit of a change in their approach. Namely, they're thinking of changing the rules to ban the gassing "non-game wildlife, particularly rattlesnakes," according to a release issued from the state agency. They're in the process of holding public hearings and getting feedback now, but it's likely the rules will be changed if there isn't too big a fuss from those who still want to gas the snakes to get them up and moving.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, dumping a bunch of gasoline or some other noxious chemical down a burrow hole is decidedly effective, but it could also kill the other species hanging around the hole, it makes the burrow unlivable for years after the gassing and the chemicals being used are being allowed to soak into the ground and from there to the water supply, which is bad news for anyone or anything - especially out in West Texas - who, you know, likes to drink water. Texas Parks and Wildlife officials note in the release that there are other ways to get the snakes out of the burrows and that some roundup contests have already stopped gassing snakes. Changing the rules would also put Texas on the same page with dozens of states that have banned gassing in recent years. (Not that we care as a rule about what other states are doing, but this might be one time we could be followers in the Lone Star State.) There will still be some exceptions, if the rule is put in place, allowing exterminator-type people to gas snakes when they need to be removed from inhabited areas.
Some states even require you to have a hunting license to kill a rattlesnake. Of course we've got no such thing in Texas, because, come on, it's Texas, but Texas Parks and Wildlife's consideration of the rule change is still a step toward not killing them all wholesale.
And yes, we know that snakes are scary and rattlers are poisonous and all that, but all of this rattlesnake killing has had an unintended consequence -- the development of the rattle-less rattlesnake. The theory goes that people have killed so many of the rattling rattlesnakes that it's weeding them out and producing snakes that don't rattle at all before striking. We're nowhere near not killing rattlesnakes in Texas -- this isn't California, people -- but it's a step toward not destroying animals and sections of the environment to get at some snakes.