By Verna Gates
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - The eastern diamondback rattlesnake, North America's largest venomous snake, may need its own antidote.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering adding the reptile to the Endangered Species List to restrict its hunting, killing and sale.
"We are going to do our best to keep these beautiful animals on the planet with us," said Dan Everson, Deputy Field Supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service in Alabama.
The service on Wednesday approved further study on the declining numbers of the snake species.
The study will take 12 months of scientific surveys and public comments to determine if the rattlesnake qualifies for endangered status.
Environmental groups filed a petition last year claiming the snake had vanished from Louisiana, was endangered in North Carolina and becoming harder to find in South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama.
The snakes prefer a long leaf pine forest habitat, which once stretched across 90 million acres from Virginia to Texas, but was now confined to 3 million acres, Everson said.
Also to blame for the snakes' shrinking numbers are events such as Alabama's Opp Rattlesnake Rodeo, environmentalists say.
"Snake freaks are just trying to get publicity by saying we are depleting the world of rattlesnakes and letting rats take over the world," said Don Childre, snake hunter and city planner for the town of Opp, whose rodeo typically draws 30,000 people.
While the 50 or 60 snakes trapped for the rodeo are subjected to stresses such as rattlesnake races, the animals are kept alive and released back into the wild, he said.
Childre said his town, on the edge of one of the largest tracts of long leaf pine, the Conecuh National Forest, is home to plenty of rattlesnakes, with the city clerk killing one in his flowerbed just last week.
In the United States, 99 percent of snake bites come from rattlesnakes. Of the 8,000 bites reported annually, only 12 deaths per year are reported, according to an American Family Physician website. Even if the snake is given endangered species status, the law still allows for self-defense.
"If it is ever listed, people will still be able to protect their kids, pets and property," Everson said.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu)