FORT POLK, La. -- It's probably safe to say that snakes, as a species, aren't going to win any popularity contests. It can be hard to have warm, cuddly feelings toward something with scales, fangs and possibly poison.

Bite potential aside, snakes deserve the same help as any of their wildlife counterparts -- cute or not. "I understand there is some innate fear that people have about snakes. To a lot of people, a snake is a bad thing. We are constantly trying to change their minds," said Christopher A. Melder, contract wildlife biologist at Fort's Polk's Directorate of Public Works, Environment and Natural Resources Management Division, Conservation Branch.

One snake in a bit of a tight spot is the Louisiana pine snake. Without some help from Fort Polk's conservation branch, it could be in danger of fading away.
This large patterned, non-venomous reptile can reach four to five feet long as an adult and may be one of the most rarely seen vertebrates in the United States. It is already listed as threatened in Texas and a species of conservation concern in Louisiana.

It's a candidate for an endangered listing and is now only found in a handful of isolated sites in Texas and Louisiana. "There are three sub-populations of pine snakes. One is in Texas, one is here in the Vernon and Sabine parish area and the other is in Bienville Parish -- where the highest density of pine snakes has been found," said Melder.

The Louisiana pine snake's ecosystem of choice is the longleaf pine forest -- much of which was cut due to commercial logging from 1870 to 1920. By 1935, as little as 3 percent remained uncut. "There is just so little of it left and Fort Polk is one of the last remaining places where the snake has been found," said Melder.

This ideal habitat consists of dry, sandy-soiled pine ridges that are periodically burned with a little help from Mother Nature. Fire is critical to the longleaf pine ecosystem. As these forests have disappeared and deteriorated due to logging and fire suppression, so has the Louisiana pine snake.

Why is fire so important' Burning is necessary to destroy the middle branches (midstory) of the pines and young trees and bushes at ground level (understory) in these forests. When this happens, it allows enough sunlight to filter through the upper level of branches (upperstory) and encourages numerous grasses to grow.

Where there is a good supply of grass with young, tender root systems, there is a thriving population of Baird's pocket gophers to feed on those roots. "You don't want the ground to be covered in woody shrubs and things like that. You want it to be flowers and grasses. That's what the consistent burning that Fort Polk completes on a two to three year burn cycle does," said Melder.
Ample pocket gophers are required to have a healthy pine snake population. Louisiana pine snakes live in gopher burrows and spend a great deal of their time underground.
The gophers are also the snake's main source of food. So, to even the casual observer, a circular pattern emerges from this interdependency (sandy soil, longleaf pines forests, fire and gophers = Louisiana pine snakes) in which a break in any portion of the cycle can and has resulted in devastation for the snake.

That's why in March 2004, state and federal agencies met at the New Orleans Audubon Zoo to sign a Candidate Conservation Agreement to protect the Louisiana pine snake on federal lands in Texas and Louisiana. CCA participants include: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Fort Polk, U.S. Department of Defense, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

The conservation agreement means that the people in charge of the lands that these snakes are still found on have agreed to do certain things to benefit the Louisiana pine snake's chances of survival. "Fort Polk has a responsibility to follow what we said we were going to do for this particular species. That includes continuing to burn regularly -- which is beneficial to this whole ecosystem of the longleaf pine savanna. As long as we keep the ecosystem healthy, the snake should do well," said Melder.

To make people aware of the long leaf pine snake's dilemma, Fort Polk uses a young Louisiana pine snake from Bienville Parish stock for outreach purposes.

Melder said they named her Lucy, short for Louisiana. Lucy is out and about in the community, especially at schools, helping kids understand that the snake is considered a threatened species. "There's a lot of concern about its rarity," said Melder. "What we try to push here in the conservation branch is that snakes should be respected and not played with," said Melder. "You have to start early -- that's the key. Let kids know that all snakes aren't bad. There is a place for them in this ecosystem -- in any ecosystem."

Melder said researchers still have questions about this species because it is so secretive.
So, the search for the snake -- and information -- continues. One of the things Fort Polk is working on with the National Heritage program from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is training a dog that could potentially sniff out Louisiana pine snakes. "That's important because it could impact a training event or a military construction project. Right now, you always have to assume that the snake is there, which can cause potential problems for those activities. A pine snake dog could help determine if the snake is currently in the area. That gives us a better ability to coordinate and consult with the wildlife service for anything that might impact the snake," said Danny Hudson, ecologist for the Conservation Branch.

Performing ground-penetrating radar on pocket gopher systems is another research option. "One of the things we are trying to do is keep tanks from crushing pocket gopher burrows," said Hudson. "We'll have the ability to determine the depth of the burrows which could allow us to calculate overpressure for vehicles. For example, if all pocket gopher holes are an average of 16 inches deep, and I drive a tank over sandy soils at 16 inches, I can have a reasonable expectation of not crushing the burrow. Conversely, if the burrows are shallow and you drive a tank or HMMWV over it -- the burrow could be crushed and that could be detrimental to the training and cross-country maneuvering that we do."

The challenge is that the Louisiana pine snake can be found on many of the same lands where Fort Polk Soldiers train. So, Fort Polk's conservation branch is trying to proactively manage the ecosystem to have the least effect on military training while still protecting the snake and its habitat.
"If we do the management now, we'll be able to predict impact and, working with our cooperative partners, hopefully prevent a designation of critical habitat (the land necessary to provide the physical and biological features essential for conservation at the time of listing). That will have a direct effect on training. If we can keep that from happening, we will be better able to train our troops," said Hudson.

In the end, Fort Polk's conservation branch, along with community and their conservation partners are trying to help Soldiers continue training while preventing the worst-case scenario for the Louisiana pine snake.

"If this snake disappears, you lose a portion of the ecosystem you can never recover. You'll never know what the impact is going to be. The fact is, it's our responsibility to ensure that we manage not only from a military standpoint or a natural resources standpoint, but also from an ecosystem standpoint because our role is to ensure the future of the sustainability of these lands for the military -- and the American public. Military installations tend to be strongholds for endangered species across the U.S. because we have managed the property and prevented encroachment. We have become that last bastion for these animals," said Hudson.
It's all about good stewardship -- locally and Army wide.

"The Army is a good steward of the land. I personally think that Fort Polk, as well as other installations, have pretty much proven that. It's important that continues. That's really just being part of this conservation agreement and showing that we want to do our part to protect this species," said Melder.

The Conservation Branch tries to document all snakes they come across. "If you come across a snake that you believe is a Louisiana pine snake, please don't kill it and report it to us if possible," said Melder. For more information call 531-1971.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16