Louisiana pinesnake proposed for federal listing as a threatened species

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) recently proposed to list the Louisiana pinesnake (Pituophis ruthveni), a reptile species from Louisiana and Texas, as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The proposed rule appears in the October 6, 2016 issue of the Federal Register (81 FR 69454 – 69475).

The Louisiana pinesnake is found in west-central Louisiana and east Texas where they were historically associated with well-drained sandy soils dominated by open-canopy pine forests and abundant herbaceous vegetation. Historically, longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) forests were common on these sites and were subjected to recurrent, low-intensity ground fires approximately every three to five years. 

These forest structural conditions also are important for the Louisiana pinesnake’s primary prey, the Baird’s pocket gopher (Geomys breviceps). Baird’s pocket gophers also create burrow systems in which Louisiana pinesnakes are most frequently found. Although the snake is active during daylight hours, it is secretive, spending much of its time underground and retreating to burrows when disturbed.

The Louisiana pinesnake has been described as one of the rarest snakes in North America. In total, 267 occurrence records of 235 individual Louisiana pinesnakes have been verified from 1927 through 2015. Extensive trapping efforts during 1993–2015 throughout the historical range of the Louisiana pinesnake resulted in only101 unique individual captures. Little is known about the life history of the Louisiana pine snake due to its apparent rarity, secretive nature, and preference for occupying pocket gopher burrows. 

In the proposed rule, the Service states that “six natural, potentially extant, populations of Louisiana pinesnakes occur in four parishes (Bienville, Natchitoches, Sabine, and Vernon) in Louisiana, and three counties (Angelina, Jasper, and Newton) in Texas” (81 FR 69460). The largest estimated population of the pinesnake, however, is found on private land in Louisiana where forests are managed with thinning, some longleaf pine restoration, targeted herbicide use, and prescribed burning. Other sites occupied by the species on private and federal lands also are dominated by pine forests that are actively managed for open-canopy conditions.

In describing threats to the Louisiana pine snake, the Service states that “a variety of natural or manmade factors, alone and in combination with other factors, currently threaten the Louisiana pinesnake” (81 FR 69462).

However, the proposed rule states that “the loss and degradation of habitat was a significant historical threat, and remains a current threat, to the Louisiana pinesnake” (81 FR 69468). Factors identified by the Service as contributing to habitat loss include fire suppression, roads and rights-of-way, and “timber harvest and subsequent conversion of pine forests to agriculture, residential development, and managed pine plantations with only intermittent periods of open canopy” (81 FR 69468).

NCASI is currently reviewing the proposed rule and literature cited therein, and will be preparing technical comments.

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