Reptile Hunters Rattled Over Ban on 'Texas Tradition'

Feeling singled out, they're threatening to sue state over legislation banning roadside hunting of wild animals

Reptile Hunters Rattled Over Ban on 'Texas Tradition'
Illustration by Doug Potter

Lizard collectors are threatening to sue the state over what they call the destruction of a Texas tradition. The argument is over parts of House Bill 12, the omnibus Texas Parks and Wildlife Department bill passed last session, which bans the roadside hunting of wild animals. Reptile-hunters say it unfairly singles out their hobby.

Jeff Barringer is a herper, short for herpetologist or reptile expert. He's also president and CEO of www.kingsnake.com, the state's largest online reptile-collecting and -breeding community. Both members and reptile dealers oppose the law. "In one fell swoop," Barringer said, "the law has taken millions of miles of public lands away from the public without their input."

The ban, he argued, will stop wildlife research, criminalize private collectors, and drive legal reptile dealers out of business. Many groups are already considering legal action, and Barringer confirmed that he had met with their attorneys to work on a cohesive legal strategy. "We do not wish to repeat the mistakes that other organizations, such as Austin's [Save Our Springs], have made," he added.

But for Todd Kercheval, clerk for the House Culture, Recreation & Tourism Committee, which developed the bill, legislators were filling a gap in the existing law. "You can't walk down the road and shoot quail," said Kercheval, "so why should you be able to hunt nongame animals?" It's not the collecting that's the problem, he said, just where it's done. The law does not ban collecting but moves it off the public roads, where people are in danger of getting hit by traffic. "The herpers say, 'We've got nowhere else to hunt,'" he said. "Well, the public roadway was never designed for anything other than [to] take people from point A to point B."

The law protects wildlife as much as people. After narcotics, animal smuggling is the state's second-largest contraband trade. "There's a growing demand for wild animals for pets and even food, and a lot of it is focused on roadside collection," said Matt Wagner, program director for wildlife diversity with TPWD. "There's no way for us to know how many animals are being taken off roads."

But it's not just the law that Barringer objects to; it's how it was passed. Originally, these rules were a separate bill -- HB 2414, by Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, which banned the roadside hunting of any game animal or bird. When it got to the House Culture Committee, chaired by Rep. Harvey Hildebran, R-Kerrville, the ban was extended to all wild animals and birds. Rep. Tracy King, D-Eagle Pass, added floor amendments excluding reptiles, amphibians, and insects from the ban. Although this version was voted out of the House unanimously, when the conference committee folded the bill into HB 12, its members went back to the Hildebran language. And it's Hildebran that herpers are blaming for the changes. "These were tacked on as riders to HB 12 at the very end, in violation of procedural rules, and technically without public comment or input," says Barringer. "These were illicitly slipped in the back door, so to speak, with many senators unaware that they were controversial."

But for Kercheval, the important vote is the final one. "Go look at HB 12," he said. "We were upfront about what was in there, and the members voted on it with pride." He described the adoption and dropping of amendments as a normal part of the legislative process. "Representative King was representing his constituents' concerns, but snakes are the biggest problem. By completely exempting them, what's the point of even moving forward?" he said.

Texas Parks and Wildlife, whose wardens will have to enforce the law, welcomed the changes. According to Maj. David Sinclair, chief of wildlife enforcement, it may even reduce wardens' workloads: They are responsible for law enforcement in remote areas of the state, and roadside herpers can cause false alarms. "Whenever we get a call in the middle of the night that someone's out with a search light, we have to go out," Sinclair said. "I think there'll be fewer of those calls." He expects most herpers to obey the new laws. "The majority of reptile collectors are law-abiding people who will move their activity behind the fence onto private property," he said.

Herpers have also accused the bill of being anti-animal, claiming that its loose definition of hunting stops passers-by from rescuing injured wildlife. "You can now run over and kill as many wild animals as you want, but you may neither collect them nor offer them assistance," Barringer said. "There is just something basically wrong with that." According to Sinclair, however, game wardens use common sense in distinguishing between rescuers and hunters. "People pick [up] all kinds of things like fawns and move them off the road," he said, "and to my knowledge, there's never been a Good Samaritan prosecuted for that."

For Kercheval, the issue remains highway safety. "We want to figure out ways to help snake populations without burying our citizens," he said. "The highway is not a place for lollygagging."

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