Rattlesnake skin has Courtland man in hot water

Published 11:00 am Thursday, May 12, 2011

COURTLAND—A Courtland area man has appealed his conviction of illegally possessing the skin of the canebrake rattlesnake, which is endangered in Virginia.

Thomas Marks will have his case on the misdemeanor charge heard during the 9:30 a.m. Thursday, May 19, session at Southampton County Circuit Court.

John Rush, a conservation police officer with Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, on July 2 charged Marks with having the snakeskin. Game officials found the skin while searching Marks’ home on a warrant on a separate investigation; Rush would not comment on the separate investigation, but said no charges have been filed in that case.

“We came across this skin,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether you killed it, run it over with a lawnmower or run it over with a vehicle, it’s illegal to possess it.”

Marks, who could not be reached for comment, said he’d run it over with a brush hog, but evidence doesn’t support that, Rush said.

J.D. Kleopfer, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in Charles City, said there’s been one report of a canebrake rattlesnake in Western Tidewater. That was in Isle of Wight County.

“We’re not sure on the validity of that,” Kleopfer said. “It may have been a released pet.”

The snakes, which have been on the state’s endangered species list since 1993, are found in areas of Suffolk, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Newport News, Hampton and Yorktown.

The canebrake, also known as the timber rattlesnake, was listed as endangered due to loss of habitat due to development, he said.

“Once they were mostly in southeastern Virginia, in the Newport News and Hampton area,” Kleopfer said. “We know what Newport News and Hampton have turned into the last 20 years — it’s just a concrete jungle.”

He said it’s difficult to determine the snake’s population, but within the 7,000-acre Cavalier Wildlife Management Area and Northwest Naval Base in south Chesapeake, estimates the population at 80 to 100. Kleopfer bases his figures on a 15-year study of the area.

That area has probably one of the healthier populations in the state, noting the biggest loss is due to “human persecution.”

“To be honest, all the folklore about rattlesnakes is more over exaggerated than any other species in the world,” Kleopfer said. “They’re non-aggressive. I’ve had hundreds of encounters, and I heard one rattle and never had one strike at me. You literally have to step on one or harass it where it has to defend itself. They want to sit there and be left alone.”