A large crowd of concerned citizens came to voice their opinion on the proposed rule that would prohibit the use of noxious substances to capture nongame wildlife at the final public hearing held by the Texas Parks and Wildlife on Friday at the local TSTC (Texas State Technical College).
State Representative Susan King addressed the crowd to open the event, as she stated that the large crowd proved to be an example of the public hearing process but also the spirit of the community. Several other forums had been held previously, but only a total of 22 people had voiced their opinion prior to Friday's event.
She urged those in attendance who planned to express their concerns arisen by the proposed rule to be direct, cite experiences and be respectful in their address to the representatives from the Texas Parks and Wildlife. In her discussions with the state's governor and speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, they too were concerned but hoped that minds would be changed prior to next Thursday's vote by the commission.
In looking over the petition, she cited that the individuals at the helm of the charge are not even from Texas, but hail from Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Colorado. People who don't live in the area, she said, should not be able to have an impact on what takes place in Texas, especially the future of the Sweetwater Jaycees' World's Largest Rattlesnake Round-Up.
Thereafter, a presentation was given by John Davis, the Wildlife Diversity Program Director from the Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Since the 1940s, the technique commonly known as "gassing" has been taking place. Their studies showed that not only were the target species impacted, but the non-targets as well.
Several reports were cited, with the first reports stemming back all the way to 1914. Among a wide variety of species--like reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds--some species saw "drastic" effects after their exposure or even experienced death.
The goal of the Texas Parks and Wildlife is to keep the wildlife population healthy and to avert the need for further species listings. Various findings on the impact of invertebrates within Texas was shown as well.
The petition for the prohibition of gassing came about in March 2013. In August of that year, a response was heard by the commission.
Steps were taken to develop regulatory options, which were presented in November. The proposed rule was then published in December 2013.
Feedback on the matter has already been heard on how to change the wording of the proposed rule or making some exceptions. Opportunities to voice opinions were given at the public hearings, on their website, or in person at the commission meeting to be held on Thursday the 23rd.
The floor was then opened for questions regarding the proposal and the presentation. The studies presented only dealt with one-time gassing, and when asked, it was noted that while snakes cannot be gassed in order to be caught, they could in fact be shot and killed.
It was unsure as to how many species were affected or if the assumption was that all snakes were gassed. And while the documentation came from the early 1900s all the way through the 1980s, it was stated that the information was still relevant to the proposed ruling several years later.
It was also acknowledged that none of the members of the commission--the people who will make the vote on the rule--were in attendance at Friday's meeting. While Granger was the only other rural city to have a public hearing, the rest took place in much larger cities.
When asked how it would be determined if the snakes had been gassed, the question was directed to one of the many game wardens in attendance. If passed, the rule would be enforced--dealt with on a case-by-case basis with discretion, although direct answers could not be given at this time.
While the meeting spanned almost three hours, a majority of the time was covered by the public comment portion. Speakers were informed that they had three minutes and would be given one minute warnings, and would then be told that time had expired.
Around 35 people came and voiced their opinion. Although several more people signed up to take part in the public comment, some gave their time so that others could have a longer opportunity to speak.
This was the case for Dennis Cumbie, one of many Jaycees who attended and spoke at the meeting, who said that "experts" in this particular field were the people who hunt in the local area, and urged for impartial studies to take place here to see what is being affected.
He cited his own experiences, such as the time he took a wildlife expert on a hunt who learned that the process was "not as detrimental" as he presumed. The local people are stewards of the land and are more aware of what is happening in the area than a few other people who want to make quick change through the proposed law.
He explained how the venom obtained by the snakes is used to collect anti-venom and the way it helps in research. And, the animals affected in the studies conducted were animals not native to West Texas or in outside locations.
From a personal standpoint, Cumbie explained that a good hunter would not destroy the dens he hunted in, as he intends to hunt in the same place. Should the proposed rule pass, creatures would be impacted negatively and hunters would stop hunting. As a result, there would be no local rattlesnake round-up, no anti-venom and no research.
"We're fighting something that's utterly ridiculous," he said in conclusion, and urged the Texas Parks and Wildlife to think about the impact and truly practice their goal of protecting wildlife by not passing the rule.
People from various organizations and occupations offered their input--members and personnel from the Sweetwater Chamber of Commerce, area landowners, professional health care givers, business owners, civic leaders, those who work with children, ranchers, etc.
While many voiced similar concerns with how research and the local economy would be impacted, each opinion was personal and several were emotional as they stated why the rule should not be passed. Many people cited personal experiences in their own snake hunts, being bit by snakes, or how the research from the snakes is used for cancer research.
The snake population would boom if the measure passed, hospital bills for those suffering from snake bites would skyrocket, and the way that the Jaycees reach out to a slew of programs and non-profits would fall short.
Additionally, the next generation would not know what it means to go out and hunt snakes like their fathers or grandfathers. Those from other areas who have worked to see the downfall of the World's Largest Rattlesnake Round-Up would be successful, but wouldn't know the impact it makes on those who live and work where the action takes place.
And not just from an economic standpoint would an impact be felt, but biological and in other industries within the community. If the gassing of snakes were to be made illegal, then other means of capturing animals--some of which are poisonous--should be banned as well.
One vantage point that had not been considered was from county employee Jan Bartlett, who asked if additional state personnel would be hired to enforce the rule in the instance that offenses were determined. At this time, there are no plans to hire extra workers.
Representative King made several observations based on the comments, notably how the local group surpassed the attendance from the previous meetings and how an accurate count had not been taken. The means to pass this rule was an example of government overreach, which many leaders in the state have spoken out against with the federal government.
Three district representatives signed a letter from King's office, which could have had more signatures if some politicians weren't so concerned with the political ramifications. She added that the Texas Governor and Speaker of the House said that they have not had direct communication in regards to the issue.
She asked how it was determined if the animals were dead, if they are in locations that humans cannot enter because of their small size. Furthermore, a measure such as this should be a county-by-county rule, rather than a state enforcement. King concluded by adding that she had requested an interim study and wanted to focus on the safety, education and research.
The commission will meet on Thursday, January 23 to vote on the proposed rule. The audience was informed that the format for public comment at the commission meeting would be similar to the local forum.