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The Death of a Pine Snake

Here’s the excerpt for this story.


Northern Pine Snake - Photo by Jason Howell

Northern Pine Snake (Pituophis melanoleucus) displaying atypical behavior.


     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.


From left to right: Emile DeVito, Joanna Burger, and Bob Zappalorti

     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.

Screen shot 2016-03-17 at 12.42.25 PM

Arrow pointing to a crushing injury sustained to the head

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.

Take Action

Tell the Pinelands Commission to designate areas where motorized use is not appropriate in order to keep wildlife and plants safe.


33 responses to “The Death of a Pine Snake”

  1. Jack O'Connor says:

    Hey: As a adventure motorcyclist, I have seen snakes killed on the tar and sand roads in and around the state forests. These snakes were obviously run over by a car or truck, because the were flattened.

    We sent in a report to ENSP last Sept. on one we found on Batsto Rd. FYI.

    When I see a snake sunning himself on a tar road, like Mt Misery Rd in BBSF, I chase him off. It seems that people riding in cars or trucks do not look at the ground as much as a motorcyclist does.

    Should we ban cars and trucks from the forest roads too?

  2. Tari Pantaleo says:

    The Pinelands is no place for vehicles riding roughshod over the land and its fragile inhabitants. Listed as one of the UN Biospheres and World Heritage Parks, it merits full attention and vigorous protection!

  3. Frank Luisi says:

    My wife , her Aunt(Phyllis) and I went out with Anthony, Joanna to experience the snake track and was there when the radio signal brought us all to her location… Aunt Phyllis’s son(Greg) was part of this groups activities up until his untimely death last year. When we all got the the site , (4)four quads road down the main track of “dirt road” going at excelled speeds that could have caused an accident/injury. I agree that the DEP monitor this to try and figure out what solutions can be arrived at and enforced! Being totally amazed at Anthony and Joanna’s work crew has us standing behind them to broaden the attention of government.

  4. Dale Goldfarb says:

    The rarity and majesty of the NJ Pine Barrens is in our hands right now to protect and preserve. To allow any other use except that which preserves for future enjoyment is criminal and must not be allowed.

  5. As drought and water issues become increasingly rampant in our country, South Jersey people should also be aware that protecting the Pinelands is also protecting your most precious water resource for generations to come!

  6. Mike Tarsia says:

    It’s important to note that off road vehicles ARE banned from the pines. You must have a licensed insured vehicle to operate a motor vehicle in the pines. ENFORCEMENT of existing laws is the first thing necessary to protect the pines.

    Working with, instead of taking an adversarial stance, the diversity of MULTI-USE individuals and groups is important to the sustained health of the pine lands. Blanket rejection of motorized vehicles in the pines is akin to vilifying all police because of a few bad apples. Fortunately many of these bad apples flaunt their illegal activities in the pines on social media sites such as youtube. Park rangers are aware of these postings and try to get license numbers etc.

    If you look at launch sites for canoes and kayaks, some of the most trash strewn and torn up areas are these places. I wouldn’t say ban canoes and kayaks. Education, enforcement and cooperation. That’s the ticket.

  7. Lynn Cremona says:

    The definition of a forest is a dense growth of trees and vegetation covering a large area .
    The results of allowing unrestricted use of off road vehicles in the Pine Barrens will soon change the definition of this particular environment into, what the military defines as “scorched earth” – poisoning and destruction of anything useful to living beings who inhabit the land.

    We as good stewards of the land, must stop the carnage and destruction of a very unique
    area known as the New Jersey Pinelands. The Earth is our mother, we must take care of her !

  8. Martha Windisch says:

    I just noticed a field by the airstrip at Whitesbog that has in the past been a wet grassy area is now a huge mud pit due to ATVs using it to do donuts in and spin their tires and make a mud pit. I’m sick of this disregard and saddened. It’s happening all over the Pine Barrens. Closing roads at a place such as Whitesbog
    is not the answer as that would only allow those doing the damage in and would keep those like me out – if I saw someone doing damage such as this I would report them – not like they could be caught, however.

  9. paul agemian says:

    “What good is the land if PEOPLE don’t get to use it to its fullest potential?” Another example of a human thinking they are the center of the universe. To answer your question, it’s good for all the other living things that have lived there for millions of years.

  10. Patrick says:

    Hello Dave, if the percentage of snakes killed cannot be determined accurately as you say, how do you know that it’s miniscule? This is exactly the type of mentality we need to address. If the flora and fauna in the Pinelands and other habitats are driven to extinction by human disruption, it could take millions of years for them to recover if they are able to recover at all. All of this harm because people want to “use the land” selfishly. I’m not saying we have to ban motorized vehicles in the Pinelands but we do need to prioritize our natural resources over human wants and regulate these and other events in a way that is scientifically informed and focused on conservation.

  11. Paul R. says:

    Leave the land alone! We have problems with ATVs and dirt bikes even in my back yard. The people who insist on riding these things generally have no respect for the land they are riding on and completely miss the beauty that is nature as they speed by kicking up mud. There should be heavy fines for anyone caught riding off authorized roadways, and there should be a reduction of authorized roadways, not an expansion. Fines should be at least $1000 per mile ridden.

  12. Bill says:

    The Pinelands Commission and DEP regulations do not allow property owners in the Pinelands to disturb or harass (let alone kill), a Threatened or Endangered species or its habitat. Yet, these same agencies are allowing large groups (many not local to the area) to devastate some of the most sensitive habitats and rare species found in the state. It is appalling that such a beautiful animal (along with all its future offspring) was killed in an area where the law is supposed to protect it from such threats.

  13. Susan Soesbe says:

    Enduros should be banned from public lands, as should off-road vehicles. My brother and I encountered enduros twice while riding bicycles in the Pine Barrens and were nearly run over by their reckless behavior. What chance does a small animal or plant have against them? And the damage that these vehicles do is atrocious.

  14. Dave says:

    I think the Enduro rides should be allowed. The percentage of snakes killed of the overall population first of all cannot really be determined accurately, but is most certainly minuscule. What good is land if it people don’t get to use it to its fullest potential, for everyone. If this is an open forum as it should be, opposing opinions should be allowed.

    • Jason Howell says:

      Hi Dave. Pine Snake losses have been quite high and it is not always possible to determine a cause of death in study groups because of how quickly the remains will be subject to scavenging. However, the cause of death was quite clear in this case and researchers do find multiple events like this each year. Enduros are regulated, permitted events, and they can be done safely, but the period that is allotted for them should be re-examined to assess the risks and the trails they use should be fire-cuts and sand roads. Illegal trails should be promptly removed by blocking and replanting to prevent events such as this from occuring.

  15. Donna Henry says:

    Wharton state forest, and other wildlife conservation areas, were not reserved for motor-sports tracks. It is beyond reason that the DEP is continually issuing permits for them to come in and rape the land. At this rate the DEP would be more appropriately named the Department of Environmental Payoff.

  16. Judy Howard says:

    So tragic, this lack of respect for the remaining wilderness
    we’ve been fortunate to share.

  17. Pat says:

    The NJ Pinelands will slowly be destroyed, just like our farmland. Motorized vehicles need to be controlled now. Stop screwing with our nature. DEP you need to step up and do your job.

  18. This is an enforcement issue, a policy issue, and a cultural issue. We’ve normalized this behavior by looking the other way for a generation, and now people with childishly selfish attitudes think the Pine Barrens exists for their own amusement alone, and so they have the right to tear the place up. I’ve heard an awful lot of people profess a love for the Pine Barrens, but if your love for the place begins and ends with your own profit and/or recreation, then you’re part of the problem.

  19. Norm B. says:

    I have been riding the Pine’s since I was 17, now 68 and still riding the Pines. ONLY on the roads for traffic. I agree that there are “Scumbags” out there and they are ALL over the world, even in Camden where I was a Police Officer for 30 yrs. It is a shame that wild life, animals, plants and the old towns (that I look for) suffer to the human and machine elements and when I do see things that are being done, they are advised AND reported. (Photos included). The “Fire Trails are OFF LIMITS ” and they know it. I am only one person, but I am out there almost every weekend and some days during the week. “Elements” beware.

  20. Anthony Cacciapuoti says:

    This made me so mad I tried to submit yet another comment to the DEP about this atrocity on the Pine Snake by a not quite humanoid form of ATV rider. Unfortunately the DEP is obviously not willing to receive comments on this topic because their “topic” button won’t work and all my writing to them was for naught. Very frustrating. (Relatively recently I was able to submit a comment on the ATV trails.)

  21. karen berman says:

    Just more proof of the selfishness and stupidity of humanity. The people of NJ need a real wake up call. Start using what little intelligence you have to preserve the natural beauty that still exists in this state of ours. Homo Sapiens are not the only species that live here and there wouldn’t be much left if we were!!!

  22. Peg Moore says:

    As an avid gardener in Galloway, NJ I see all kinds of wildlife on my 7 acre property. I strive to protect them all and have areas that i have tried to “assist” their habitats. I live just down the road from an area known as “the pit” where dirt bikers, and quads regularly ride. A few years, a young 20 year old was killed but it did not stop the illegal activity. These idiots have no regard for human life, so why should they think about defenseless wildlife.

    It is a shame that the laws cannot be enforsed. There should be no riding on the illegal paths even if they were one allowed. Stop the destruction of of natural habitats.

  23. J. Davis says:

    It’s long past the time for these scumbags to be stopped. They have no respect for God’s creation.

  24. Joanne Rist says:

    Pinelands should be off limits. Why have protection laws if they can just be changed for whoever.

  25. M. Wildermuth says:

    The DEP needs to step things up to protect endangered animals from off-road vehicle races. It is unconscionable that a Preserve like the Pinelands is abused by such actions.

  26. Dale Barth says:

    I have forwarded this heartbreaking article on. Doesn’t nature have a tough enough time?

  27. Dianne Pingitore says:

    Most if not all of these trails in our State forests and parks should be shut down. It is not right that people ride motorized vehicles in areas that need to be protected so that wildlife, including snakes, can live without outside threats to their lives and ultimately, their species.

  28. Joan Kager says:

    This is a shame. There are times and places for these types of sports but a trail through public lands is not one of these. Stop the insanity!

  29. Hilary Persky says:

    Passionately agree. So sad and cruel and selfish and stupid. I am sorry, Emile and Joanna and Robert, for the loss of this wonderful creature who couldn’t protect herself from this pointless destruction.

  30. HARRIET GROSE says:

    The Pinelands are a place to protect the wildlife and the plant life for all to enjoy, not to destroy. It must be treated with respect and care so that all with benefit, not just a few who cause destruction and mayhem.

  31. Dj3a says:

    It leaves me tremendously sad and all my hope depleted that this beautiful creature could not live out her life without being run over by some idiot.

  32. How insane is it that DEP is going to legalize what is now, and has always been, illegal. For what purpose is it to give the go ahead signal to the enduro groups to use illegal trails. Why are they trying to appease a group whose continued activities harm the very forest the DEP is suppose to be protecting. What is going on here???????
    The DEP, and the Pinelands Commission. continually issue use permits for motorized sports events and doing so just signal that they think our Pinelands and all public lands are motorized sports arenas. We should all be shouting loud and clear we do not want our forest to be used for motors sports and that all permits for this use should cease. Why should the citizens of NJ be supporting the hobbies of a group of people who should develop their own property for their sport instead of destroying our public lands and beautiful forest that were preserved because of what they are and not to be motorsports parks.

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