WELCOME TO THE FOREST: Wildlife officials release 15 Indigo snakes [with gallery]

Published 11:48 pm Thursday, April 25, 2019

In 2006, the State of Alabama Department of Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to release Eastern Indigo snakes into the Conecuh National Forest. Thirteen years later, they are more than halfway to their goal of releasing 300 snakes into the wild.

“Today we released 15 snakes,” Habitat and Species Conservation Coordinator Traci Wood said. “That will put us at 170 snakes overall.”

Wood said that according to science, 300 is the number to have a sustainable population.

“We won’t know that until we reach that 300 mark,” Wood said. “But in theory that is what will happen. That way they will be able to reproduce and live in a sustainable population.”

Yesterday was a monumental moment for the agencies involved and for Wood specifically when she jumped in the bushes to grab an Indigo snake that they released in previous years.

“I was extremely fortunate, while we were out in the field earlier to come across a wild snake that had been previously released,” Wood said. “That has never happened to any of us while we have been out here. The odds of that happening are so slim that you wouldn’t even wish for it to happen because it is not even a possibility. We were walking along and about to release the last snake and I caught a glimpse of its body and Tim [Mersmann] asked me if I could pick it up and there was a hesitation there because I didn’t know exactly what it was. Then I thought, if I don’t then it is going to get away and we would never know, so I dove into the bushes and came up like Steve Irwin, just grinning with the snake. I will probably have a smile on my face for at least a month just thinking about it.”

Two Covington County students, Sharae Coleman from Florala High School and Emily Chen from Pleasant Home School, participated in an essay contest and won the chance to be at the release yesterday. Wood said that this contest was a way to keep the students involved in this project.

“It is really important to have these students here with us today,” Wood said. “We are trying to reach out to the community just to share this experience and unique opportunity with them. If we don’t have this impression on the younger generation, then what are we doing it for? We can do all we want to from a biological standpoint, but if we don’t have the future generation and their support to see the value in this project then we will never get to the 100 percent goal that we have.”

FHS teacher Lee Newby said that this project was perfect for her students because it was something that was in their own backyards.

“Ninth grade students, of course, need to be exposed to research,” Newby said. “With this being in the Conecuh National Forest it was perfect because it was right in the students’ back yards. Traci had a lot of resources so the students didn’t have to go dig for it, all they had to do was look through it and pick out what they wanted to use, then they had to cite everything. It really gave the students a lot of good information.”

Michele Elmore from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that there is a special committee that came up with the idea for releasing the snakes in the Conecuh National Forest.

“There are several environmental factors that the committee has to consider,” Elmore said. “Habitat, long term management, with this being in the northern range there has to be a sustainable amount of gopher tortoise populations and large intact forests. This particular species has a very large territory and one of their biggest threats is getting run over in the road. So, we needed huge intact forests so they are not crossing huge roads, because the bigger habitat patch they have, the less likely they are to cross a road and get killed. Right now, we only have two sites for release in the entire U.S., which is here and in the panhandle of Florida.”

The indigo snake release is not the only thing on district ranger of the Conecuh Tim Mersmann’s mind during this time of season, but it is the cherry on top.

“This time is our prescribed burning season in the national forest,” Mersmann said. “Fires are very important for this ecosystem, so it can support all of the animal species living here. We are all about restoring the whole ecosystem including the trees, so the indigo snake is just the cherry on top. It is the apex predator out here, so for us to be able to restore that species to the entire system, it is really very satisfying.”

Several different agencies worked to release the Indigo snake, including the State of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Auburn University, Zoo Tampa, Central Florida Zoo and the Conecuh National Forest.