Making snake hisstory

June 30, 2006

Never underestimate the muddy-boots crowd over at the state Department of Natural Resources when it comes to turning what could be a humdrum habitat project into a real attention-getter.

Because no one has stepped on - or even spotted - a northern pine snake on the Delmarva Peninsula since the early 1970s, the DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Service plans to release about 60 of the reptiles inside the Pocomoke State Forest in lower Worcester County. Who cares about snakes on a plane - how about tails on the trails?

The snake thrived in the region's piney forests and sandy soil before the woods were cleared to make way for agriculture. Naturalists believe the time is ripe to bring the snake back to the area as one more step in restoring the land to its former pristine state. Try telling that to the forest's population of rodents, lizards and other small prey.

A mature northern pine snake can grow to be more than 6 feet long. To some ophidiophobes, the snake's pointed snout, thick neck and stark black-and-white pattern give it an uncommonly ferocious appearance. And to make matters even worse, a surprised pine snake shakes its tail and hisses loudly. But behind all its bluster, the snake is nonvenomous and even a bit shy. It prefers to burrow under the ground, looking for food and staying away from bipeds in hiking apparel.

And that's where the educational component of the project comes into play. Snakes give lots of people the jitters. Truth is, it ought to be the other way around. The pine snake's biggest enemy has been man, who felled the peninsula's short-leaf pines and plowed the sandy ridges into flat farmland. That action ruined the snake's habitat and scattered its prey. No doubt, a few were killed by humans who felt their world was better off without snakes.

This summer, DNR workers will begin preparing a pair of underground chambers for snake hibernation and breeding. And next year, two batches of pine snake hatchlings will be brought to Maryland from New Jersey and released near their new homes.

Folks from the Salisbury Zoo already are educating the public about the snakes and their significance to the area. In the end, it doesn't really matter if you hate or love the creatures. What does matter is this: If some day you happen to be enjoying Pocomoke State Park and spy a snake on the trail, leave it alone. In the meantime, no word from the DNR about the prospect of bringing bears back to the region.

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