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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

The ten billion dollar a year worldwide trade in rare and endangered snakes includes a lot of poaching. At an illegal snake market in Big Bend National Park in west Texas from 1993 to 1994 the National Park Service launched its biggest poaching sting there. But instead of catching and convicting the poachers, the Park Service itself has come under fire for the conduct of its probe. Martha Bebinger visited the Park recently for a look at the lessons of “Operation Rockcut”.


CURWOOD: The worldwide trade in rare and endangered species is big business. Ten billion dollars a year, according to government officials. In the early 90s, trade officials urged the Department of Interior to take a more aggressive approach to wildlife poaching and collecting. Rangers at Big Bend National Park in West Texas responded. An illegal snake market there had been the subject of rumors for years, as zoos, pet shops, and collectors sought Big Bend snakes because of their unique markings and colors. So, from 1993 to 1994, the National Park Service launched its biggest poaching sting ever, at Big Bend. But instead of catching and convicting a lot of poachers, the Park Service itself has come under fire for the conduct of its probe. Martha Bebinger visited Big Bend recently for a look at the lessons of Operation Rockcut.


BEBINGER: Big Bend National Park is 810,000 acres of rugged mountains and vast desert along the Rio Grande. Looking out over the wide open space, it's easy to feel you're the only person in the park. But when night falls a very different world emerges according to Chris Scott. He remembers driving park roads at night as an undercover agent on Operation Rockcut.

SCOTT: In some areas the traffic was so heavy from snake collectors that there was actual near-traffic jams. There were 4, 5, 6 cars very close together and they'd be driving 15, 20 miles an hour so they could see snakes. I saw near-fistfights a couple times from people arguing who saw the snake first.

BEBINGER: Snake collecting is legal in Texas if you buy a hunting license and stay off private and protected land, including parks. Big Bend is home to unique varieties of the colorful gray-banded King Snake and Trans-Pacos Rat Snake, among others. Agent Scott says that illegal trade in those snakes was fueling a multi-million dollar business.

SCOTT: Really, we learned what many of us suspected right along, that we just barely nipped the iceberg. There were just so many people doing, breaking so many laws down there, that after a certain amount of time we shut it down with 20-some possible defendants.

BEBINGER: That was the summer of 1994. The Park Service called Operation Rockcut a huge success, announcing plans to file 290 state and Federal charges against 27 suspects. But a final report issued this spring shows only 10 guilty pleas, most from misdemeanors like traffic violations. Just 4 were directly related to the snake trade. When asked why, National Park Service investigator Philip Young says some judges just didn't care about snakes, and many state and Federal prosecutors were too busy.

YOUNG: We find case loads to be so extreme, especially along the border, that a lot of times resource crimes certainly are prioritized down the ladder.

BEBINGER: Lax poaching laws are another reason prosecutors don't make wildlife cases a priority, according to Young. But he admits the Park Service also made its share of mistakes. There was very little follow-up because the office that handled Operation Rockcut closed as part of a Park Service reorganization. Critics add that inexperienced seasonal workers were hired for the investigation, and that their supervisors were hundreds of miles away. Responding to these criticisms, investigator Young will only say that the Park Service is reviewing its rules.

YOUNG: We have learned a lot from Operation Rockcut, which is really initially the first operation of that scope. And discussions continue at this point about when and where we'll be taking those lessons.

BEBINGER: That's a disappointing response for some suspects, who claimed they were set up by Operation Rockcut. Rick Denham is one of them. He used to own a pet store in Alpine, Texas, the only sizeable town within 100 miles of the park.

(Radio announcer with music: "KALP-FM, Alpine Texas news is next.")

BEBINGER: Sitting in his truck near his former store, Mr. Denham recalls buying a snake from undercover agent Chris Scott.

DENHAM: The first time he come in I refused him, because I told him that they didn't sell well here. And about a week later he returned and offered a snake to me at a real cheap price. He presented himself as a reptile distributor, and I thought all the animals I was getting from him was legal reptiles.

BEBINGER: That's not how Chris Scott remembers the trade.

SCOTT: He had told me that he had collected several snakes out of Big Bend National Park, which he sold. And this is all on tape. And he says that he accidentally ran over a gray- band King Snake within the national park, and he claimed that would have been a month's pay.

BEBINGER: Based on Chris Scott's testimony, Federal agents raided Denham's store, seized the snake he bought and some store accounts. But for reasons prosecutors won't discuss, Rick Denham was never charged. That's not much comfort to Mr. Denham. He says even though his legal record was cleared, his reputation was ruined.

DENHAM: Rumors got started and business dropped down, and I pretty much lost my business from that. It also started problems at home. Me and my wife ended up getting a divorce and everything because there was so much stress and all.

BEBINGER: There are similar stories of frustration and anger among the other suspects whose cases were dropped. One man, a New York State trooper accused of buying an illegal snake, says the allegations are a permanent blot on his record. Another alleged poacher is suing investigators involved in the operation. But resentment against the Park Service is not confined to the accused. It has also spread to hundreds of legitimate snake collectors in West Texas and across the country. Norman Nunley, one of those so-called "herpers", works at the True Value Hardware Store in Alpine. He's been legally catching and breeding West Texas snakes for 20 years. Mr. Nunley claims the Park Service bungled Operation Rockcut by exaggerating the market for Big Bend snakes, the extent of the poaching problem, and pretty much everything else in the investigation.

NUNLEY: As far as I'm concerned it was a lie from beginning to end. It was gross neglect on part of Chris Scott and those involved, spending taxpayer dollars for something that resulted in destroying individual lives, local economy, future economy. Because these people who are avid reptile collectors will not come to these areas because they feel they're going to be harassed from then on.

BEBINGER: Park Service agents don't have much sympathy for losses to area motels, restaurants, and stores that may have been supported in part by illegal snake hunters. Even though they won just 4 convictions on illegal snake trading, the Park Service says the sting put poachers on notice and reduced a real problem. The investigation also led to changes within the Park Service. Rangers across the Southwest are building a database of alleged poachers, conducting overnight snake patrols, and going to special trainings where they learn to spot snake hunters.

SPANIER: There's a number of things that kind of tip us off. There's no one thing that will scream at you...

BEBINGER: Big Bend ranger Steve Spanyear patrols the park's western district.

SPANIER: Snake hunters, they need light because they work at night. And so a vehicle that's rigged with a lot of spotlights is a pretty good indication. Somebody that sleeps all day in their camp and then gets active at night -- the less experienced ones may actually leave out a snake stick propped up against something. And obviously, if you see that sort of thing it's a great clue.

BEBINGER: Ranger Spanyear says he sees lots of people who fit the snake hunter profile. But he's never caught anyone leaving the park with a snake. And in the wake of Operation Rockcut, the biggest challenge Big Bend rangers now face may be restoring the public's trust and cooperation in guarding park wildlife. For Living on Earth, I'm Martha Bebinger.



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