n a West Texas prairie of cactus and mesquite, Riley Sawyers sprays gasoline fumes into a narrow crevice in the ground, hoping to drive slumbering rattlesnakes to the surface. His equipment isn’t fancy, just a common pesticide canister attached to a long, thin copper tube. The smell of gasoline fills the air, but no snakes emerge on a 45-degree January day, disappointing Sawyers, a ponytailed tile mason who rounds up snakes on the side. Sawyers says that on a good day he’s captured as many as 56, grabbing them with 4-foot tongs as they emerge for air.
It’s a sport revered in rural Texas—especially in Sweetwater, 200 miles west of Dallas, where every March thousands of snakes that hunters capture in the first three months of the year are brought to the Rattlesnake Round-Up to be slaughtered and sold for meat, leather, and venom vaccines. Sawyers’s snake-wrangling skills have made him something of a celebrity in Sweetwater and got him a recurring part on the Animal Planet reality show Rattlesnake Republic, where teams of Texans compete to round up the vipers.
The hunt may soon become a lot more challenging. Texas environmental officials want to join 29 states that have already banned the use of noxious substances to collect or harass nongame wildlife, citing evidence that gassing, as it’s called, endangers at least 26 animals and insect species sharing underground caverns with snakes. “The research shows quite a compelling case for biological concern,” says John Davis, director of Texas’s wildlife diversity program. “We’re trying to do everything we can to keep species healthy.”