The Death of a Pine Snake
Here’s the excerpt for this story.
By Jason Howell
The warm spring air drifted into the chamber that protected her during the long winter months, signaling the coming spring. A female Northern Pine Snake, she trusted her ancient instinct to rise to the surface of her hibernaculum to greet the warmth of the day. With a careful flick of the tongue, she inspected the air for any sign of danger. When the time felt right, she moved deftly out of her chamber and into the pine needles, oak leaves, and shrubs that give her a near perfect camouflage against predators both on the ground and in the air. Then she may have sought out a patch of open canopy, not too exposed to allow easy identification by predators, but just enough to allow her to absorb the beneficial rays of the sun that filter through the pines.
Unfortunately, the spot she chose was a defacto trap, a path near her den with the exact requirements she instinctually seeks is used by dirt bikers to drive their machines illegally and at high speeds. She may have sensed the vibration through the earth, but she had no chance to avoid the fast coming machine. An off-road vehicle is a thing that advances without careful inspection of the environment, it isolates its driver from the realities of nature and at the same time empowers them with immense destructive capability-a dangerous combination for the plants and animals who they come into contact with. Many of these informal paths were created years ago by Enduro competitions, where riders compete in timed events at set speeds. The paths are then kept open by illegal use after the routes become popularly known from the competition. The NJ DEP may now be considering allowing enduro events to maintain and use these presently illegal paths, a step that could have grave consequences for species already under tremendous pressure.
In this case, it was this female Northern Pine Snake who paid the price for this hobby. As a successful individual of a threatened species, this would have been her 13th season of life in the New Jersey Pine Barrens and if she was allowed to live, she would have been afforded another precious opportunity to reproduce, to hunt, and to exist. Before her death, she was tracked for two years by Joanna Burger, Robert Zappalorti, and Emile DeVito to study her behavior and habitat requirements. She was found dead by these researchers on March 13th, 2016 as they attempted to establish the site of her hibernaculum. If this Northern Pine did not have a radio tracking beacon, her death would have been just another mysterious loss from a protected species. Judging from the recent tracks, the path on which she was found, and the mechanism of injury, her death was most likely caused by a dirt bike–thirty-three days before Enduro event season ends in the Pinelands. Clearly, the dates of allowable ORV events need to be re-examined given the great risks they pose to this and other species. There is both an Enduro event and a Jeep Jamboree scheduled for the weekend of March the 20th, 2016 in Wharton State Forest, the date of the spring equinox, and the scheduling of these events is in clear conflict with the emergence of Pine Snakes and Timber Rattlers who are now at their most vulnerable period.
Additionally, to protect Snakes and other wildlife from illegal use, old enduro trails need to be closed because of the immense danger they currently pose to wildlife in all seasons. Park Police have almost zero ability to enforce this informal spaghetti network because of the impossibility of pursuit and the ability of riders to flee into the forest network upon sight of a police vehicle. Our dedicated police officers are left frustrated by the lack of will of upper-management of the DEP to manage the trail networks used by off-road vehicles, preventing the officer’s from effectively punishing the crime.
Already these rare animals need to survive the danger of motorized transportation on paved roads, poaching, and habitat loss, they should be strongly protected from any further incursion into their habitat. A hobby is not as important as an entire species and our policies should reflect that.