Herping Ethics and Etiquette

There are an increasing number of people who enjoy viewing amphibians and reptiles in the wild.  "Herping," as it is often referred to, can be an exciting and inexpensive way to celebrate the natural world, much like birding, hunting, or fishing.

The more popular and traditional pastime of birding is rife with suggested rules of etiquette and even a code of ethics, but the same can't be said for herping (although, it has been discussed) (See this product from MWPARC.)  So, here's my attempt at elucidating some etiquette rules for the ethical herper.

1) Don't pursue listed species.  Just as it is illegal to disturb a Bald Eagle's nest, in Ohio pursuing a listed species is considered "take" and is only permitted with a permit from the Ohio Division of Wildlife.  Being listed as threatened or endangered should tell you that these species need all the help they can get, and having their habitat disturbed or being captured for fun or photo will do nothing to help their recovery.

2) Don't disturb research sites or equipment.  A lot of resources go into surveying and monitoring amphibian and reptile species in Ohio, and your unauthorized visits to these sites could invalidate results.  This includes searching under artificial cover objects in place for snake surveys ("tin") and disturbing aquatic funnel traps for turtles and amphibians.  If you know that animals are being tracked using radiotelemetry in an area, then pursuing this species could alter the behavior of these animals.  If you are lucky enough to be invited to visit a research site, this in no way gives you or your friends permission to return to the site, or to post information about the site or the research.

3) Leave the habitat as you found it. 
Return rocks and logs to their original positions.  Don't tear apart logs or strip trees of their bark.  For some species, locating individuals is necessarily destructive, e.g., moving large rocks to look for hellbenders.  Again, doing this for fun or photo is unethical and in the case of the endangered hellbender, illegal.

4) Do not trespass.
  Included in this is slipping off the boardwalk at a preserve where it is illegal to do so without a permit, or entering a closed portion of a site (often designated as a "refuge" in Ohio).

5) Communicate with land owners and managers.
  Slinking around a site will only raise suspicions.  Oftentimes, land managers are dealing with a suite of competing interests, and letting them know what you intend to do will often result in their asking for your cooperation (e.g., "Don't disturb the nesting eagle."  "Stay out of the freshly planted area."  "Keep away from the research site.").  It's also very likely that they can provide information on the best places to view that basking turtle or find a vernal pool.  Remember that you may be the only contact the person has with an amphibian/reptile enthusiast, so don't ruin the reputation of everyone else who enjoys this activity!  Owners and managers are often genuinely surprised to find out there is more than just "snappers and lizards" on their property, and your passion for wildlife can sometimes rub off on them.  

6) Don't disclose sensitive locality information.  As we learned from Operation Shellshock, that person posing as an enthusiast who just wants to photograph a massasauga, might really be interested in returning to the site to poach 33 individuals for sale.  If you take friends you've met on the Internet to the site, this is no different than posting the information on the web.

7) Share your information and data with researchers and agencies.
  If you have a collecting permit, this is easily accomplished in your mandatory yearly report.

8) Disinfect everything that comes into contact with animals or soils between sites.  Again, if you have an Ohio collecting permit issued by the Division of Wildlife, instructions for doing this come with your yearly renewal information. (Links to information on herp diseases and disinfection procedures, here.)  While Bd (amphibian chytrid fungus) is a much talked about pathogen of amphibians, there are other emerging diseases that could be devastating to naive populations of both amphibians and reptiles.  Our biggest concern should be the pathogen we don't yet know about.

9) Be a model for ethical behavior.
  Ask yourself, "Is my behavior benefiting amphibians, reptiles, and their habitats?"  While it can be quite the boost to the ego to have that great photo and story to share, or to be the first to show a friend some rare species, ask yourself if this is coming at a cost to the species and/or its habitat.

10) Appreciate and respect our native wildlife.  Amphibians and reptiles are more than just checks on your life-list.  "Competitive herping" - seeing who can find the most, the rarest, or acquire the best photo -  has degraded the overall appreciation of these fantastic creatures.  Take the time to watch the animal, marvel in their adaptations, and wonder at their often complex life histories.  Sometimes this means standing back and not putting your hands on every individual you encounter!

And finally, if you forget everything I have written here, remember Greg's litmus test: "If law enforcement was to suddenly appear, would I change my behavior?"  If you answer yes, you're doing something wrong.