After being put on notice by a national environmental group, state authorities have required Claxton's rattlesnake roundup to get a permit as a wildlife exhibitor, apparently for the first time in its 44-year history.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources issued the permit March 4 for the Evans County Wildlife Club to exhibit live rattlesnakes during the March 12-13 festival. The club paid a $59 fee, provided information about its snake corral and holding pens, and described what goes on there as an educational exhibit.
A state law, OCGA 27-2-13, requires permits for display of wildlife to the public and states: "No such permit shall be issued by the department except where the exhibition or display is solely for educational
purposes." However, the law goes on to exempt educational institutions, public zoos and "transient circuses" from the permit requirement.
The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity sent letters Jan. 25 to the DNR's Wildlife Resources Division, two DNR law enforcement rangers, and the sheriffs of Evans and Grady counties, asking that they enforce existing laws in regard to rattlesnake roundups. While Evans County is home to the Claxton Roundup, Grady County hosts Georgia's only other current roundup, at Whigham, which went forward unaffected on Jan. 29.
Center for Biological Diversity conservation biologist Tierra Curry, who signed the letter, specifically cited both 27-2-13 and a law requiring a permit for the importation of wildlife from other states.
The Center for Biological Diversity wages an ongoing petition drive to encourage the transformation of rattlesnake roundups into non-hunting festivals. The center cites studies showing that Eastern diamondback rattlesnake populations are in decline.
Interviewed by phone, Curry said she thought the permit should not be issued. She asserts that snakes could be obtained by other means for an educational exhibit and that the roundup is really about catching and killing snakes.
"We want Claxton to still have a festival," Curry said. "We just want it to be a festival where snakes aren't collected and killed, you know, more family-oriented, true education."
She named Fitzgerald, Ga., and San Antonio, Fla., as communities where former rattlesnake roundups have been transformed into festivals that no longer include a snake hunt. San Antonio, near Tampa, still hosts an annual Rattlesnake Festival, and Fitzerald's former roundup was replaced by the Fitzgerald Wild Chicken Festival in 2001.
Mike Harris, section chief of Nongame Conservation at the DNR, acknowledged that the permit law has been on the books for years but had not been enforced previously in regard to the rattlesnake roundups. He also confirmed that the Center for Biological Diversity prompted this year's action.
"We have a law that requires that individuals or organizations get a permit if they want to exhibit wildlife to the public and we had never really realized that that would apply to the roundups," Harris said. "I mean, rattlesnakes are wildlife. They are legally defined as wildlife."
However, rattlesnakes and other venomous snakes are part of what his assistant section chief, Jon Ambrose, calls the "unlucky 14," a list of species that also includes coyotes and other animals considered varmints. These enjoy no specific protections under Georgia law, while non-venomous snakes are protected.
But the environmental group's letters prompted legal research at the DNR, which determined that a permit would be required.
"The main purpose of the exhibition permit is to make sure that the event is safe for the public, and of course, it absolutely is and it has been, so they meet all the requirements," Harris said.
Snakes are not killed at the Claxton roundup, but they are sold to a buyer who in past years acknowledged selling meat and hides.
In another new DNR action, Randy Campbell, the Florida-based buyer for both the Claxton and Whigham roundups, was required to get a wildlife export permit, Harris said. These are issued free.
The DNR will be getting in touch with the organization that sponsors the Whigham roundup about an exhibition permit for next year, Harris said.