Alabama landowner heads to court over a snake that isn’t there

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No good deed goes unpunished. Where has reason gone in this country?

Gray Skipper, whose family has practiced silviculture in rural southwestern Alabama’s Clarke County for four generations, is incredulous. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is itching to slap land-use restrictions on his property in order to protect the rare black pinesnake under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

But there is a problem: There is scant evidence that Skipper’s land is home to a single black pine snake.

In response to a lawsuit filed by the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), FWS in 2015 listed the black pinesnake, a non-poisonous creature measuring four to six feet in length, as “threatened” under the ESA. In 2020, FWS designated 324,679 acres in Alabama and Mississippi as “critical habitat” for the snake, including 93,208 acres of private land. The designation included 10,000 acres home to the Skipper family’s lumber business.

FWS says the Skipper property is “occupied” by the snake but can produce no evidence backing that up. According to a complaint filed on Skipper’s behalf by the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), there have been a total of five sightings of black pinesnakes on the Skipper property over the past 25 years, four of them over 20 years old and the last one in 2015. So much for the land being “occupied” by the snake.

Punishing Stewardship

The Skipper family has worked closely with various state of Alabama conservation programs since 1956, and Gray Skipper has shown himself to be a model private conservationist. But the ESA has a long history of punishing, not rewarding, environmental stewardship.

“By opening their land, maintaining original habitat and a complex forest system, encouraging wildlife, and permitting research, the Skipper’s land was identified by FWS,” PLF attorney Charles Yates was quoted in Farm Journal (Sept. 22) as saying. “Critical habitat and the Endangered Species Act treat species as liabilities — not assets. This means families that maintain habitat are punished, and FWS’ policy is self-defeating.”

“I want people to find out how power-hungry FWS is in our case,” Skipper told Farm Journal. “A landowner already doing the right thing to save a species is not the person to clamp down on, and it’s crazy because we were already doing everything they wanted based on our own concerns for the environment, including prescribed burns and leaving stumps alone, encouraging habitat. All the generations of my family have been proud to be involved in conservation and didn’t ask or expect anything back. I still believe somewhere down the line, common sense is going to kick in, but that may be too naïve on my part.”

Scott Jones, CEO of Forest Landowners Association, a nonprofit representing 5,000 forest family landowners and 50 million acres of woodland in 45 states, has joined Skipper in suing FWS over the snake. Jones says FWS makes in critical habitat designations based on soil type and tree species, not on the actual presence of the species on the designated land.

“Think of the logic,” he told Farm Journal. “FWS says the Skipper’s private land is critical habitat – as in the land is so critical for the species to survive – yet, how can the species survive on the Skipper’s land if there are no pinesnakes to begin with?”

The Snake and the Frog

The case is reminiscent of the dusky gopher frog controversy in Louisiana. In 2011, FWS designated land in Tammany Parish as critical habitat for the tiny frog, even though none had been seen in Louisiana since 1967 and the only known habitat for the roughly 100 remaining dusky gopher frogs was in Mississippi. Even worse, the land in Louisiana designated as critical habitat was no longer suitable for the frog. After an eight-year journey through the court system, the case was settled in 2019 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in an 8-0 decision, against FWS, forcing the agency to withdraw the critical habitat designation.

FWS may be facing a similar face with its black pinesnake designation on the Skipper property.

  • Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT, where he focuses on natural resources, energy, property rights, and geopolitical developments. Articles by Dr. Cohen have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Investor’s Busines Daily, The New York Post, The Washington Examiner, The Washington Times, The Hill, The Epoch Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Miami Herald, and dozens of other newspapers around the country. He has been interviewed on Fox News, Fox Business Network, CNN, NBC News, NPR, BBC, BBC Worldwide Television, N24 (German-language news network), and scores of radio stations in the U.S. and Canada. He has testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, and the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee. Dr. Cohen has addressed conferences in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and Bangladesh. He has a B.A. from the University of Georgia and a Ph. D. – summa cum laude – from the University of Munich.

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