Tuesday, October 21, 2014 · 5:29 p.m.
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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether eastern diamondback rattlesnakes should be deemed a threatened or endangered species. (Photo: Contributed)

Should the largest poisonous snake in the eastern United States be considered a threatened or endangered species ... and if it is, do you care?

Those are questions the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be trying to answer in the coming months. The service has announced a decision to move ahead in consideration of a petition to list the eastern diamondback rattlesnake as threatened and designate critical habitat for the species under the Endangered Species Act. The decision stems from a petition submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Coastal Plains Institute Inc., Protecting all Living Species and One More Generation.

Eastern diamondbacks can grow to a length of about 8 feet and are the largest rattlesnakes in the world. The eastern diamondback, however, is not the species of rattlesnake you are likely to find near Chattanooga. We have timber rattlers here. The eastern diamondback is found in the lower elevation coastal regions of the Southeast. The two are sometimes confused. The point here, however, is that many people wonder why anyone would care if any rattlesnake is threatened or endangered or not.

"I try to separate what I do from the fears or attitudes of people," said Harold Mitchell, a field biologist for the USFWS. "All I can do is report on the science about the status of a species, and it doesn't matter whether they slither or whether they're warm and fuzzy."

The timber rattlesnake (right) is the species found in Tennessee. They are marked with chevron-type stripes the length of the body. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake (left) is marked with distinct dark diamonds outlined in yellow. (Photos: Contributed)

"We are well aware of the feelings people have about snakes and other such species," said Lorna Patrick, also a biologist with the USFWS.

Mitchell, Patrick and a host of other federal biologists and regulators are now tasked with determining if eastern diamondbacks deserve special attention from the federal government.

When the feds finish their work, they'll make one of the three following decisions:

—Listing is not warranted, in which case no further action will be taken.

—Listing as threatened or endangered is warranted. In this case, the service will publish a proposal to list, solicit independent scientific peer review of the proposal, seek input from the public and consider the input before a final decision about listing the species is made. In general, there is a one-year period between the time a species is proposed for listing and the final decision.

—Listing is warranted but precluded by other, higher priority activities. This means the species is added to the federal list of candidate species, and the proposal to list is deferred while the service works on listing proposals for other species that are at greater risk.

One of the latter two seems possible because eastern diamondbacks already get special attention in North Carolina, where they are listed by the state as endangered. In South Carolina, Alabama and Florida, they are recognized as a species of "special concern."

Of course, snakes of every variety represent an important piece of the eco-puzzle, even if they do have a nasty reputation. For folks concerned about their ability to protect themselves, Patrick points out that an endangered species designation wouldn't matter.

"Even if they were to be federally protected, an individual who believes their life is in danger can kill a species regardless of its federal designation," Patrick said.

But even under those circumstances, you would not want to make a belt or a fancy hatband out of your kill. Do that, and it is likely a federal agent might come knocking on your door.

All that is hypothetical at this point, however. There are miles to go and reams of red tape to cut before it is decided whether or not to federally protect eastern diamondbacks. And the USFWS wants you to be part of the process.

"Whatever fears people have, we welcome them to share that, and we take that into consideration," said Denise Rowell, a media relations specialist with the USFWS. "All that feedback is crucial in the process."

Written comments regarding the proposal may be submitted by one of the following methods:

—Click here and follow the instructions for submitting comments to Docket No. FWS–R4–ES–2012–0006

—U.S. mail or hand-delivery to Public Comments Processing, Attn: Docket No. FWS–R4–ES–2012–0006, Division of Policy and Directives Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM, Arlington, VA 22203

Comments must be received within 60 days (on or before July 9). The service will post all comments here. This generally means the agency will post any personal information provided through the process.

Richard Simms is a contributing writer, focusing on outdoor sports. 

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