Approximately 600 children and adults gathered in Conecuh National Forest to celebrate the reintroduction of the eastern indigo snake to its native habitat in south Alabama. The gathering marked the beginning of what organizers hope will become an annual event, the Eastern Indigo Snake and Wildlife Festival.
The eastern indigo snake disappeared from the Alabama landscape in the 1950s. Today, it is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, and the snake is a non-game protected species in the state.
The overwhelming support for the snake is likely a result of its preferred diet—other snakes, especially copperheads. In fact, the eastern indigo snake’s disappearance from south Alabama has corresponded with a sharp rise in copperhead sightings, and today, copperheads are responsible for more venomous snake bites in the Southeastern U.S. than any other snake.
The Eastern Indigo Snake and Wildlife Festival was hosted by organizations directly involved in reintroduction effort, namely the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, or ADCNR, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Auburn University Museum of Natural History’s Natural Heritage Program. The event raised awareness of the benefits of eastern indigo snakes and other forms of wildlife associated with the longleaf pine forest ecosystem.
The longleaf pine forest was once the most extensive forest system in North America, representing 90 million acres. Today the longleaf pine forest has been reduced to an estimated 2.7 million acres, including Conecuh National Forest.
“Conecuh is the only suitable site we have left in the state that will support indigo snakes,” said Traci Wood, habitat and species conservation coordinator for the ADCNR and festival coordinator. “We wouldn’t have anywhere to put them if it weren’t for our partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and their excellent management of Conecuh National Forest.”
As the longleaf pine forest has dwindled, so too has the wildlife that depends on the forest for survival. Currently, there are 34 species associated with longleaf pine forests that are threatened or endangered, including the eastern indigo snake.
“The loss of longleaf pine habitat, along with a loss of controlled burns, has really resulted in a snowball effect of species loss,” said Wood, who also administers the Eastern Indigo Snake Reintroduction Project. “We hope that by getting children involved in the Eastern Indigo Snake and Wildlife Festival, they will learn about the importance of protecting our state’s wildlife and carry that lesson with them into adulthood. The festival provided the children with hands-on science activities, which got them excited about conservation.”
A Bullock County community group, “CAMO Kids,” was among those present at the festival. “CAMO” is an abbreviation for “Children and Mentors Outdoors,” and the founder, Don Larkins, is the Bullock County District 1 commissioner. He and his wife, Tracy Larkins, manage the organization as a means of introducing local youth to the outdoors with an emphasis on community service and conservation.
“We are always looking for educational opportunities for the kids,” said Tracy Larkins, “and we had an amazing time at the Eastern Indigo Snake and Wildlife Festival. It was very educational and the hands-on learning opportunities were invaluable. The kids really, really enjoyed it, which is great. Opportunities to spark excitement for science and an appreciation for the outdoors are invaluable. We hope the excitement guides the kids to choose a science-related career path.”
The festival featured interactive booths where participants could touch and hold live animals like the indigo snake and gopher tortoise, learn about black bears and birds, identify animal skulls, explore the longleaf pine ecosystem, and more.
“The festival was remarkable,” said Joe Dobbs, chairman of the ADCNR Conservation Advisory Board. “All of the exhibits, the opportunities for the children to be hands-on participants and see several varieties of the animals, to make them part of the conservation process, was very special. Given the right opportunities, like the Eastern Indigo Snake and Wildlife Festival, kids get very engaged. And when they are engaged at that level and at a young age, it takes a lot to get them disengaged. Good stewardship of our resources, an appreciation of the beauty and how important our natural resources are to the state, proper conservation management, and participation in outdoor activities are all tantamount to the future of our state.”
Alabama sets the standard for conservation projects
The Eastern Indigo Snake and Wildlife Festival marked the halfway point of the Eastern Indigo Snake Reintroduction Project that began in 2009 and is funded primarily by a Wildlife Grant from the ADCNR through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The goal of the reintroduction project is to release 300 snakes in Conecuh National Forest, which is the estimated number necessary to reestablish a strong breeding population. To date, the reintroduction team has released 157 snakes, including 20 snakes that were released just prior to the start of the Eastern Indigo Snake and Wildlife Festival.
The eastern indigo snake disappeared from the state due to a variety of factors, including loss and degradation of their natural habitat, over collection associated with the pet trade, excessive mortality from automobiles, and gassing of their winter refuges to catch rattlesnakes.
“The disappearance of the eastern indigo snake had to do with humans,” said James Godwin, zoologist with Auburn University’s Alabama Natural Heritage Program and coordinator of the indigo snake reintroduction effort. “Humans changed the landscape, altered the longleaf forest, so humans are the ones who have caused the loss of the indigo snake in south Alabama. But humans are going to be the mechanism by which we bring the snake back.”
Reintroduction of the eastern indigo is part of a larger conservation effort to reestablish the longleaf pine forest in the southernmost part of the state of Alabama.
“In the Conecuh National Forest, our mission is to restore the longleaf pine ecosystem, and the indigo snake is an important piece of that ecosystem that’s been missing for the last several decades,” said Tim Mersmann, Conecuh National Forest district ranger with the U.S. Forest Service.
The eastern indigo is the longest native snake in North America and may reach a size of 8.5 feet and a weight of 11 pounds for males, and 6.5 feet and 6.5 pounds for females. A non-venomous, docile snake, the eastern indigo gets its name from its lustrous, glossy, iridescent blue-black coloring of the head and body.
“I have held snakes before but never such a large and powerful snake as those eastern indigos,” said Dobbs, who participated in the release. “And even though the snakes were raised in captivity, they instinctively knew exactly what to do and where to go when you let them go—straight to the gopher tortoise burrows, because that’s where they live, where they take shelter. It was quite a moving experience. It increased my already high level of appreciation for the diversity of the wildlife in Alabama.”
The snakes were bred, hatched and reared until they were 2 years old at the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation at the Central Florida Zoo. Rearing and breeding large snakes like eastern indigos is challenging due to a number of factors such as maintaining enough adult snakes for breeding, pinpointing the most effective methods for breeding, successfully incubating the eggs, and locating the financial resources necessary to support the snakes while in captivity.
Disease is also a common problem for indigo snakes, and each snake is tested for cryptosporidiosis, an internal parasite that is on the rise and deadly for some snake populations, before being released into the wild.
Thus far, a combination of resources and expertise have allowed for success in captive rearing and breeding of eastern indigos, and the effort continues to grow.
“With the Eastern Indigo Snake Reintroduction Project, we have established a model of what a conservation project should look like and how successful it can be when you build partnerships,” said Wood. “In 2009 when the project was initially funded, we never would have imagined being where we are today. Of course, we still have a long way to go, but because of the efforts and resources that so many have dedicated to this project, other states and agencies are looking to us as a model of a successful conservation program. Alabama is a leader in this area, and we are conducting some cutting-edge research along the way.”
The institutions and organizations involved in Alabama’s Eastern Indigo Snake Reintroduction Project include the ADCNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, Auburn University, Central Florida Zoo, Zoo Atlanta, ZooTampa at Lowry Park, and the Welaka National Fish Hatchery.
“Every day, people are behind the scenes managing our natural resources, and I appreciate that projects like these take a lot of
energy and effort,” said Dobbs. “The time investment of all those involved in the conservation of the eastern indigo snake in Alabama is inspiring. They aren’t just saving a snake from extinction. They are preserving a piece of our natural heritage for future generations.”
Candis Birchfield is a freelance writer from Lake Martin, Alabama.