By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Jim Godwin crouched next to a patch of white sand in the Conecuh National Forest last week and gently released a dark, 6-foot-long serpent. The threatened eastern indigo snake didn’t hesitate to slither quickly into the intended target, a gopher tortoise burrow.
The head of the eastern indigo snake, with its tongue testing the muggy July air, made a brief appearance at the burrow’s entrance, but there was too much hubbub going on in the longleaf pine forest for it to pose for photos. No encore. Elvis has left the building.
The hubbub was created by efforts to reestablish a viable population of the snakes that once were abundant before the longleaf pine became a prime species for lumber production. More than two dozen people, including wildlife and forestry professionals as well as interested citizens and their children, joined the project leaders to release the snakes.
Godwin, of Auburn University’s Alabama Natural Heritage Program, has spearheaded the project for the past 11 years, and last week’s release of 26 eastern indigo snakes increased the number of released snakes significantly.
Through a grant from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, the program had previously released 107 eastern indigos into the wild, according to WFF Grant Coordinator Traci Wood.
“This project is an example of great accomplishments for the eastern indigo snakes and all the partners involved,” Wood said. “It’s a great effort toward the recovery plan to enhance and maintain a population in the historical range of the eastern indigo. This species was extirpated from the state and hadn’t been seen since the 1950s. It is considered an apex predator. It plays an important role in the ecosystem, specifically the longleaf pine ecosystem. I think this is an exceptional example of the reintroduction of an imperiled species.
“This project is not only about the propagation and release of these snakes in the forest; we are also monitoring these snakes. PIT (passive integrated transponder) tags were inserted into the snakes. We will have technicians walking areas where snakes were released to look at survival, abundance and demographics.”
Eastern indigo snakes are the longest snakes native to the U.S. at more than 8 feet long. They prey on a variety of small mammals, amphibians, lizards and numerous species of venomous snakes. The venomous copperhead snake is a common meal for the indigo. Godwin said indigos will range far and wide during the warmer months and then seek refuge in the gopher tortoise burrows during the winter.
Wood said the WFF’s State Wildlife Action Plan identifies 366 species that are in the category of greatest conservation need.
“Alabama is one of the most diverse states in the nation, specifically Conecuh National Forest, in terms of amphibians and reptiles,” she said. “This area is the most biologically rich public land in the country.”
Wood said the long-term goal for the eastern indigo project is to release 300 snakes into the wild.
“It’s a long-term effort our agency is committed to with all our partners,” she said. “I want to thank Jim Godwin with Auburn University, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Zoo Atlanta and OCIC (Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation) for all their work and dedication. And I want to thank the U.S. Forest Service for their exceptional management to give us this opportunity to release these snakes in quality habitat.”
Tim Mersmann, Conecuh District Ranger, said he hopes the release of eastern indigo snakes becomes an annual event.
“We are all about restoring longleaf pine forest ecosystems on the Conecuh,” Mersmann said. “It’s really what drives us. This open, fire-maintained forest is what we’re about. This type of forest ecosystem used to be the most common condition along the coastal plain and the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast. Now it’s fairly rare. Many of the species associated with it are rare as well.
“We’re about restoring this condition as part of our natural heritage. And restoring the ecosystem means restoring the parts and pieces. One of the most exciting and striking pieces, no pun intended, is the eastern indigo. These snakes are very docile, but they are really a top predator in this type of ecosystem. So, to get them back after decades of being missing from this ecosystem is really exciting.”
Mersmann said that herpetologists have studied the 84,000-acre Conecuh National Forest and determined it has more species of amphibians and reptiles than any public land unit in the country.
“We’re really proud of that,” he said. “It’s a great haven for reptiles and amphibians, a great home for a snake-eating snake like the indigo. They’ve got a real smorgasbord to choose from. And it’s heaven for herpetologists as well.
“Beyond the herpetologists, this is part of our natural heritage. It’s part of the legacy we want to leave for the future. That is why we really enjoy having kids out here for the indigo snake release. That’s been part of the tradition.”
Godwin said last week’s release was the fifth major release in the project’s 11-year history.
“When we set out looking for a place to begin this project, Conecuh stood out as the only place in Alabama where we could successfully accomplish this task of reintroducing a population of indigo snakes back into Alabama,” Godwin said. “It had to do with this relatively intact landscape and good ecosystem management, and, as best as we know, the perpetuity of that management.
“This area is incredible for reptile and amphibian diversity. Another species in Conecuh that is rare is the gopher frog. One of the top breeding sites for gopher frogs is right here in Conecuh.”
Godwin said during the early days of the indigo project the snakes to be released were propagated from indigos that had been captured in the wild in Georgia. The indigos in last week’s release were bred in captivity at the Orianne Center at the Central Florida Zoo. Zoo Atlanta, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army’s Fort Stewart also provided indigos in the past.
“Rearing an indigo in captivity costs a lot,” Godwin said. “When you multiply that by 50 or 60, it’s a huge task. We’re very grateful the zoos have been able to step up. The Birmingham Zoo now also has an interest. As this project has moved along, it has continued to expand. We also welcome new partners to help support this.”
Godwin said monitoring the success of the reintroduction of the indigo population is a difficult proposition, but new technology promises to make it easier. During last week’s release, the youngsters in the group were given priority to release the snakes, hopefully fostering their interest in the species.
Goodwin said eastern indigos are next to impossible to find in the wild.
“If you don’t have a radio transmitter in an indigo snake, you don’t know where it’s going or what it’s doing,” he said.
Godwin did say one eastern indigo snake was spotted in Conecuh National Forest this year.
“This is a federally threatened species, and the person who saw it knew it was protected,” he said. “I wish we could have collected some information, but he did the right thing by leaving the snake alone. We know indigo snakes are surviving out here. We hope in the future, the children will grow up with an appreciation and a real care and concern for these snakes.”
PHOTOS: (David Rainer) Jim Godwin of Auburn University places an eastern indigo snake near the entrance of a gopher tortoise burrow in Conecuh National Forest recently. The eastern indigo project released 26 snakes with the help of a group of wildlife officials and interested members of the public. Several of those in attendance were willing to carefully handle the threatened species, including youngsters Joel Hernandez, left, and Isaac Elmore, who were coached by Michelle Hoffman of the Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation.