There’s a den of snakes in Tiger, and all the South should be happy about it.
North Georgia’s Orianne Society is dedicated to the conservation of reptiles, amphibians and their habitat in the South and the nation, working to preserve a rich natural history of the region’s less-loved but no less important creatures.
Among them is the eastern indigo snake, the largest snake in North America and a threatened species throughout its range, now mostly limited to southeastern Georgia and Florida.
Through a combination of working with landowners, habitat restoration and reintroduction, the society is hoping to create sustainable populations of the animals in northern Florida and southern Alabama and Mississippi, areas where it’s functionally extinct.
Eastern indigos live for about 12 years in the wild. The black snakes with burnt orange faces are unique to the American South and can travel large areas in the summer in their search for food.
In the winter, they group together in the burrows of the gopher tortoise to survive the cold. To save the eastern indigo, The Orianne Society, the largest reptile conservation organization in the United States and a global leader in the work, is trying to preserve the tortoise.
That work happens in the field, the longleaf pine forests and sandhills of the Deep South and the Eastern Seaboard, but is headquartered in an unsuspecting white house on Old Fruit Stand Lane in the little Rabun County community of Tiger.
Visitors to the wooden home are met with the slap of loose screen doors, the tired creak of wooden floors and the angry shake of rattlesnakes. There are eastern diamondbacks, canebrakes and pygmy rattlesnakes, venomous critters native to the South, sitting in their enclosures against the walls of the main room. And they’re loud.
Elsewhere in the building are the odd copperhead, king snakes, corn snakes and tortoises.
They sit right outside, and in the case of the copperhead, inside the office of Chris Jenkins, CEO and founder of The Orianne Society, who leads the 14-member organization working to preserve the eastern indigo snake in the South.
“We don’t do advocacy, lobbying, litigation, any of that,” Jenkins said in early June. “We do boots-on-the-ground, get-your-hands-dirty type of conservation.”
Usually that means starting fires.
In the pre-European South, wildfires were routine in the brush underneath the tall pines — so routine that the pines themselves are fire resistant, according to the Alabama-based Longleaf Alliance, another group dedicated to preserving the unique habitat.
With homes, roads and other infrastructure in place, residents of the South are less interested in letting fires sweep through their backyards and across interstates. Jenkins and his employees use “prescribed fires” to get “the most bang for the buck” in specific areas to restore longleaf pine forests by clearing underbrush and consuming non-pine trees.
“Really what we’re doing is managing that habitat for gopher tortoises,” Jenkins said. “We’re improving the habitat; we’re trying to turn as much as that habitat back to what it was pre-European.”
That looks like savannah: open grasslands on sand with a low density of large pine trees. Gopher tortoises survive on the grass and use the nutrient-poor soil to dig their burrows.
“The place that the snakes need – they absolutely need these tortoise burrows or they cannot survive in Georgia — those animals are declining and becoming more rare in their own right,” Jenkins said.
Habitat restoration for the tortoise and work for the indigo snake are happening side-by-side. Through a center in Florida, the society is hatching indigo snakes for reintroduction in restored habitats in Alabama and Mississippi. More than 100 snakes have been released in the past eight years.
There are between 40 and 70 snakes in captivity depending on when eggs are hatching and when the snakes are being released back into the wild.
For now, the snakes are concentrated in the peninsula of Florida and in southern Georgia.
“You could draw a line south of I-16 and east of I-75,” Jenkins said of southeast Georgia, “and the majority of the remaining indigo snakes in Georgia are within that southeastern block.”
Through reintroduction and habitat restoration, the society is hoping to push their range back across Georgia, through Alabama and into western Mississippi.
They’re spending so much time on the two species because of how they affect the rest of the food chain in the South.
Tortoises create shelter critical to a huge number of other animals. About 350 other species, from owls to snakes, use the burrows throughout the year, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
And Jenkins said the indigo snake acts as an “umbrella species” because of its tendency to cover large distances.
Because other snakes make up half of its diet — eastern indigos eat anything from other indigo snakes, copperheads and eastern diamondbacks — the animal is a “predator of predators,” he said. They’re at the top of the food chain, and to stay there they have to cover a huge area, sometimes up to 3,000 acres.
“Just imagine a tiger in India. A mouse in India is going to have a relatively small home range,” Jenkins said. “Tigers, you can imagine, are covering hundreds and hundreds and maybe thousands of square miles.”
That travel moves them through different kinds of habitat and eating different kinds of prey. A traveler that high on the food chain has plenty of opportunities to be killed. If they’re still around, it means the environment is in relatively good shape.
“Because indigo snakes use such big areas, because they use different types of habitats – they use these sandhills and then they leave the sandhills and they go into the swamps — so to adequately protect and indigo snake you need to protect its prey resources. You need to protect relatively large areas and you need to protect different types of habitat,” Jenkins said. “If you can effectively do that using this umbrella concept, you’re just going to protect a lot of other things.”
Beyond habitat destruction, many of the snakes are simply being killed by people — gassed in burrows by hunters looking for rattlesnakes, run over by cars or met in the backyard with a shovel.
Indigo snakes, as with all snakes, are an important part of the Southern ecosystem, and eat many of the nuisance animals people hate.
“You wouldn’t go out in your backyard and shoot every songbird that you see. People have this innate fear of snakes, but if you see a snake in your backyard it’s no different than that songbird. It’s just another animal,” Jenkins said, adding that “indigo snakes are snake predators. (They) eat venomous snakes; they eat copperheads; they eat diamondbacks. They eat all types of snakes. Oftentimes people are more concerned about venomous snakes ... that is one value that oftentimes people put on indigo snakes.”