Saturday, February 21, 2009

Sniff, Wag, Sit, Snake! Conservation Dog Tracks Indigos

C.J. is all Lab: big, bad to jump on you, bent on chasing tennis balls.

Oh, and trained to find eastern indigo snakes.

On a recent romp in turkey-oak sandhills near Valdosta, the chocolate Labrador roamed the forest, trailing leash and handlers Kara and Mike Ravenscroft, and answering Kara’s frequent calls to stick a nose down gopher tortoise burrows and sniff.

Dirk Stevenson, an indigo expert with Project Orianne, a new conservation organization centered on conserving the protected species and its habitat range-wide, said a dog like C.J. can help pinpoint these rare snakes that wander far in warm months and often hole up in the bottom of tortoise burrows during cold weather.

“Even when they’re abundant,” Stevenson said of indigos, “they’re in low numbers.”

Eastern indigos are North America’s longest snake, reaching more than 8 feet. Adults can be as thick as two fists and weigh upward of 10 pounds. Their color is a striking glossy or bluish black; indigos appear iridescent in sunlight. Their diet is indiscriminate, including almost any animal they can swallow, even rattlesnakes.

But Drymarchon couperi has been federally listed as threatened since 1978. The snake’s historic range from southern Georgia to the Florida Keys and southwestern Alabama has been shredded by habitat loss and fragmentation. Populations dwindled as the non-venomous snakes were run over by cars, killed by people and gassed in gopher tortoise burrows, an illegal practice tied to rattlesnake roundups.

Using dogs’ keen sense of smell to pinpoint imperiled wildlife such as the eastern indigo is a growing practice. Conservation canines have been used to find everything from a threatened lupine in Oregon to brown tree snakes in Guam. C.J.’s resume already lists spider monkeys in Nicaragua and bats in Texas, plus a trained aversion to rattlesnakes.

Project Orianne rented the retriever from PackLeader Dog Training of Washington to explore survey methods for indigos, which are also listed state-listed in Georgia as threatened. C.J. didn’t disappoint, finding live snakes and shed skins. His “alert” for each discovery begins with what Stevenson calls a “slappy” tail and ends in a sit.

“He has … come onto the trail of a snake and gone as far as 200 meters to find (the snake),” Stevenson said.

This cold day spent searching likely indigo sites on private property yielded some excited looks but no alerts. Yet, Georgia Wildlife Resources Division staff including Nongame Conservation Section program manager Matt Elliott had a chance to watch C.J. work, making a cursory check of areas where indigos have not been documented.

Conservation of indigos and key habitats such as the longleaf pine sandhills in Georgia’s Coastal Plain are priorities in the State Wildlife Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy guiding Wildlife Resources efforts to conserve biological diversity. A recently announced DNR project funded in part by a Wal-Mart Foundation grant will help train Georgia teachers about sandhills habitats and wildlife. The grant was to The Environmental Resources Network, a nonprofit that supports DNR’s nongame work.

The Nongame Conservation Section receives no state funds to help conserve wildlife not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as rare plants and natural habitats. The work depends instead on grants, private support and fundraisers such as sales of the bald eagle and ruby-throated hummingbird license plates and donations to the Give Wildlife a Chance state income tax checkoff.

C.J.’s outlook is less complex: Find a snake; get to retrieve a ball.

At day’s end, Kara, who with her husband Mike was working for Project Orianne, even coaxed the dog to sit for a photograph.

Asked about the biggest challenge in working with C.J., she responded with a laugh, “Getting him to cooperate.”

EASTERN INDIGOS …

· Are sometimes confused with black racers, the indigo's slimmer, smaller, faster and much more abundant cousin.
· Are closely tied in Georgia to the Coastal Plain’s longleaf pine sandhills, where the snakes depend on gopher tortoise burrows for shelter in winter.
· Often return to the same gopher tortoise colonies and sometimes even the same burrows each winter, often traveling near-identical routes. (A University of Georgia student doing research for the DNR found that one male indigo followed the same course even though part of the area had since been clearcut).
· Are diurnal, or active mostly by day.
· Range far and wide. A recent study in Georgia determined that some males’ home ranges exceed 3,000 acres.
· Are non-venomous and often eat venomous snakes such as rattlers and cottonmouths.
· Are protected by federal and state law: Harming an indigo is a federal offense.

Sources include Amphibians and Reptiles of Georgia

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