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Luring the Indigo Snake Back to North Florida


Snake Hunter

C.J., the snake sniffing dog.

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Locals once fondly called eastern indigo snakes “gopher snakes”, perhaps because of their frequent use of gopher tortoise burrows. But today, few north Florida residents under age 50 have seen one of these docile, blue-black snakes in the wild.  That’s why, at The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, staff collaborates with a private foundation named Orianne Society – the Indigo Snake Initiative. The two groups are working as partners to restore native habitat, and hope to reintroduce the magnificent snake to northwest Florida. A snake-sniffing dog named CJ may help the process.

Nature.org spoke with the Conservancy’s Northwest Florida Program Director, David Printiss.

David Printiss is The Nature Conservancy’s Northwest Florida program director. He is coordinating the Conservancy's effort to reintroduce Florida's largest snake.

Nature.org:

Why is it important to return the indigo snake to north Florida?

David Printiss:

They are North America’s largest native snake, and a federally-listed threatened species that was once an important part of Florida’s diversity. Not only is the species beautiful, graceful and quite harmless to humans, but it also plays an important ecological role as the sandhill community’s top predator of reptiles.

Nature.org:

There are some warm and fuzzy aspects of this project.

David Printiss:

Yes, beginning with how Orianne Society began. The foundation’s donor, a dedicated protector of wild cats all over the world, introduced his young daughter Orianne to an indigo snake. She was enchanted and asked if he could protect the indigo as well as big cats. So Orianne Society was born.

Then there is C.J., an indigo-sniffing dog. The six-year old chocolate lab locates snakes for Orianne Society. Handlers tested C.J. at our preserve, and he correctly found snakes placed in gopher holes 85-90 percent of the time! He has sniffed out many wild indigos in natural settings in Georgia; those snakes were studied, tagged and released.

Nature.org:

How did the Conservancy become involved with Orianne Society?

David Printiss:

Orianne Society is interested in assisting with land management needs in north Florida in areas with high potential for eastern indigo snake reintroduction. The Conservancy’s Northwest Florida program has been perfecting methods of restoring sandhill habitat, the indigos’ preferred upland habitat. Orianne Society also funds projects with Conservancy chapters in Georgia and Alabama.

Nature.org:

The Florida Chapter of the Conservancy recently received a generous grant of $200,000 from Orianne Society. How will this be used?

David Printiss:

Torreya State Park, which shares a boundary with our Conservancy preserve, suffers today’s well-known budget problems and we want to help. The lion’s share of Steephead ravines – one of the rarest habitats on the planet, and an excellent site for indigo snakes – are in the park. We are eager to restore some of the sandhill habitat and help keep those ravines intact.

We’ll remove the sand pine plantation, along with long rows of 3-6 foot piles of dirt and debris. We’ll thin out hardwood trees, add some native longleaf pines, and seed new groundcover from a mix collected at our preserve. After 40 months, the new landscape will be ready for controlled burns to help keep it all in balance.

Nature.org:

Why is the Conservancy working to restore the state park instead of its own preserve?

David Printiss:

Native species such as the indigo snake need lots of territory. And while restoration at Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve is almost complete, just across the highway Torreya State Park still has serious needs. The Conservancy helped protect that land – we negotiated its purchase in 2002 on behalf of the state. We believed it was very special then, and still do now. It doesn’t matter who owns it.

Nature.org:

Will indigo snakes be reintroduced at these protected areas?

David Printiss:

I certainly hope so, and that may happen in four to six years. First, Project Orianne’s team will back the project with solid science. They’ll look carefully at the gene structure of the breeding groups that might populate our site, and consider how removing any of those snakes could impact the original populations. They will determine the best way to release the snakes, and set up a guaranteed, long-term management plan.

Orianne Society has been working with Auburn University and the state of Alabama to release indigos at Conecuh National Forest. Those results may impact our work here in Florida. More research will also be done on the factors that caused north Florida’s snakes to decline in the first place, and on how those issues might be reduced. There are many questions, and we’re all eager to dig for the answers. Get Involved


 
 

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