One month ago I was standing below the towering longleaf pines
in Conecuh National Forest. In my hands, I had an Indigo Snake. This was not
just any Indigo but a very special snake; one of the Indigos that we were
releasing to reestablish Indigo Snake populations in Alabama. The species has
disappeared from about a third of its range and on that day I had the opportunity
to do my part to restore one of the greatest icons to the region. I gently
lowered the Indigo Snake to the ground and watched as it moved off through the
wiregrass into its new home. As I looked around I saw the faces of the young
children and college students and felt good knowing that these Alabamians would
be able to enjoy a future with Indigo Snakes in the pine forests they call home.
In 1978 the Eastern Indigo Snake was listed as a Threatened
species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service due to populations declines from
habitat loss and fragmentation, the gassing of gopher tortoise burrows, and
over collection. In 1982 a recovery plan was completed for this species which
included promoting captive propagation and reintroduction into its historic
range, which includes all of Florida, southern Georgia, and parts of Alabama.
However, reintroduction efforts are complex and require a significant
amount of forethought before reintroducing a species back into an area where it
has been extirpated. The Orianne Society, formed in 2008 to save the Eastern
Indigo Snake, has been researching the factors that caused Indigo Snakes to
decline from their historic range and working to mitigate those factors that
caused the decline. This should be the first step in any successful
reintroduction program; if the factors that caused the initial decline were
still present; reintroducing snakes back into these areas would be futile.
Additionally, when selecting a site for reintroduction, we consider if the site
can be restored and the land managed long-term, if the site is large enough to
support a healthy population of Eastern Indigos, if there is connectivity to
other Indigo populations, and if the partners at the site are dedicated to the
reintroduction effort long-term. Lastly, we need to know that Eastern Indigo
Snakes do not currently inhabit a release site as we are reintroducing the
species, not supplementing populations.
We surveyed numerous potential sites for our reintroduction
efforts and at one of those sites partnered with the Alabama Department of
Natural Resources and Auburn University to reintroduce Eastern Indigo Snakes onto
Conecuh National Forest in southern Alabama. Conecuh National Forest holds over
84,000 acres of longleaf pine habitat and a healthy population of Gopher
Tortoise; which are crucial for Eastern Indigo Snake survival (Indigos use
Gopher Tortoise burrows as overwintering areas). This, combined with the
dedication of the US Forest Service who manages this forest and is fully behind
the project, makes Conecuh an ideal reintroduction site.
The Conecuh reintroduction kicked off on June 16, 2010 with
the release of 18 Eastern Indigo Snakes. Until this time, Indigos had not been
found in Alabama for over 50 years. A second release was implemented in May of
2011 when 30 additional snakes were put on the ground. At each reintroduction,
the group of snakes was divided, some being part of a “soft” release, and some
part of a “hard” release. The soft release snakes are released inside large
enclosures that prevent them from moving large distances (each enclosure is 1
ha in size). Hard release snakes are not placed in these enclosures, but rather
are placed in the forest close to gopher tortoise burrows or similar refugia.
Each snake is fitted with an internal radio transmitter that allows us to
monitor their movements and survivorship. Comparing snake survivorship between
hard and soft release animals will allow us to determine the best release
method to ensure survival.
On May 5 of 2012, we are proud to say that we released a
third group of Eastern Indigo Snakes into Conecuh National Forest. The 31
snakes released this day were hatched and reared at Zoo Atlanta, primarily
under the supervision of Brad Lock, Assistant Curator of Herpetology at the
zoo. Ten of these snakes were part of a soft release, and 14 part of the hard
release; 24 were fitted with internal radio transmitters so that we can track
and monitor how they are using habitat and their survivorship. This round of
snakes brings the total to 79 Eastern Indigos released onto Conecuh National
Forest. Though not all the snakes reintroduced have survived to date, the
majority do appear to be doing very well. In fact, there is some anecdotal
evidence that the earlier reintroduced snakes may possibly be reproducing,
which gives us great hope for a sustainable population in the future.
The partnership between The Orianne Society, the Alabama
Department of Natural Resources, Auburn University, Zoo Atlanta, and the US
Forest Service is strong. We will continue to work together in the future,
captively breeding and reintroducing Eastern Indigo Snakes onto Conecuh
National Forest as a group effort; and monitoring these species until we are
certain that this forest will hold a sustainable population of majestic Eastern
Indigo Snakes for future generations to enjoy.