Counting Snakes

Ron Sutherland, doctoral candidate


Ron Sutherland, doctoral candidate

Jon Gardiner

Just wanted to let you in on some good news," Ron Sutherland wrote in a recent e-mail note. "Pilot the dog found his first wild pine snake yesterday down at the Sandhills Gamelands! It is a very reassuring first step toward what I hope will be many snakes in the future."

Two weeks earlier, the Ph.D. candidate in environmental science and policy at the Nicholas School sat with his two dogs in the living room of his Chapel Hill home. None of the three could be described as completely dejected, but, after a weekend training in the downstate Sandhills region, all showed signs of exhaustion. Two-year-old Pilot hobbled across the room, moving like a much older dog. His sister Tessa lay on her back on the couch, with little wag in her tail. Sutherland, seated on an adjacent loveseat, spoke candidly of the dogs' limited success as snake-hunters.

"So far," he said, rubbing Pilot's head, "I've found more snakes than these guys have this spring."

Over the last year and a half, Sutherland, twenty-eight, has been attempting to teach his two pointers--typically bird dogs--to track snakes. This foray into the semi-wild is motivated not by sport, but by science: The hunts end not in capture or killing, but in Sutherland's recording the number of snakes found in specific types of habitat.

The Cary, North Carolina, native, who says his conservationism was inspired by seeing the forest playgrounds of his childhood bulldozed into subdivisions and shopping malls, has devoted his dissertation to defining the large-scale habitat requirements of North Carolina's rare-snake populations in hopes of promoting larger preservation efforts.

"We are losing snake-y places pretty fast, about 100,000 acres per year in this state," he explains. Many of the state's rare snakes are state-listed as "threatened," but none has been placed on the federal "endangered species" list, Sutherland says, "partly because they are so hard to survey. Nobody has any idea how many there really are."

Using the Nicholas School's GPS system, Sutherland has mapped out fifty parcels, twenty-five acres each, that vary based on characteristics such as road density, percentage of natural habitat remaining, and human traffic--all of which he believes may affect the viability of the snake population.

Over the course of three summers, he plans to visit the sites on a three-week rotation, surveying up to four sites a day to get an index of their snake populations. That amounts to a lot of walking, and the need for very good eyes--or noses. That's where the dogs come in. "They can crisscross and cover ground much faster than people," he says. "If you could get them to sniff out and point snakes--even those underground--you could potentially get a more accurate count far faster."

So far, the going has been slow. Sutherland first trained the dogs to point birds, intending then to wean them onto snakes. "They pointed snakes from twenty to thirty feet the first time out," he recalls. The next time, though, "they seemed to recognize the scent, and sniffed them, but they just weren't into it. They wanted to find birds."

"The rest of the training," he says, "has been convincing them that, no, they don't want birds, they want snakes." He has experimented with various forms of positive reinforcement, from treats to playtime.

Daily training sessions, which supplement weekend trips to the Sandhills, are not overly scientific, just a half hour or so in which he hides snakes--he owns five--around the house or in the backyard and then lets the dogs out to track them.

The dogs peep through a kitchen window, watching as Sutherland hides an Eastern King snake outside. But when they are let out, they still run frantically around the yard. Pilot eventually meanders his way over to the snake hole, earning himself a game of fetch, while Tessa continues to run around the yard, sniffing half-heartedly.

"What I'd really like them to be able to do," Sutherland says, "is on a cool morning, intersect a trail snakes were moving along the night before and trail the snake to its hole."

Meantwhile, he says, as Tessa runs off to join Pilot on the hunt for the tennis ball, "I'm working to develop patience."

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