When herpers go onto public or private lands, we should already be aware that we are subject to rules and regulations imposed on us by State and Federal governments regarding the pursuit of reptiles and amphibians. You can find the California State regulations on my California Herping Regulations page. But there are also some simple rules of etiquette and ethics that herpers should observe in the field to ensure that the animals and their habitat will persist, allowing future generations of herpers to observe them. Most of these should be just plain obvious and have been repeated elsewhere in guidelines regarding behavior outdoors.
I have compiled many of these ideas from various sources that deal with observing animals in the field - herp books, internet forums, and from organizations such as the North American Field Herping Association and the American Birding Association, which has an excellent Code of Ethics: American Birding Association Code of Birding Ethics. But ultimately these guidelines reflect my opinion and not those of any group or organization. If you disagree with something here, or have something to add, feel free to let me know and I'll consider making additions or changes.
Do No Harm - Respect the Animals and the Environment.
Always be aware of the effects that your presence and actions have on the land and its inhabitants.
You can easily destroy habitat and animals accidentally even without knowing it.
The spread of the Chytrid fungus which is devastating amphibians worldwide mave have been helped by field biologists moving from one wetland into another before the fungus was recognized. They follow procedures to sterilize their gear now to avoid spreading the fungus, but a lot of damage has already been done.
- Don't Harm Any Animals, including those you're not hunting.
There is no such thing as a "trash" species. Everything has its place in the scheme of things. Take care not to smash insects and rodents you find underneath rocks or logs or boards that you turn over looking for herps when you replace them. I have seen dozens of "trash" snakes at some sites that were smashed accidentally under rocks by herpers who were looking for other species and killed them in their hurry to roll over the next rock.
- Don't Handle Herps Unnecessarily.
Try to minimize the stress they endure from contact with you.
Always remember that in their eyes you are an enormous predatory monster.
Herpers usually want to catch and handle animals they find. It's often the only way we can look at and photograph these wary and secretive animals. And noosing lizards can be an enjoyable pastime much like catch-and-release fishing. But sometimes it can be much more rewarding if you just leave them alone and observe herps in their environment. You can see lots of interesting natural behavior that way. I have enjoyed following frogs and lizards around with a video camera and I have been amazed at how tolerant some of them become to my presence and how close they let me get to them once they decide that I am not a threat.
Herps are generally very tough and resilient, but to be safe, it's probably best not to handle them longer than is necessary to observe and photograph them, and handling frogs and salamanders with thin sensitive skin should be avoided when possible. Take care not to damage fragile skin when catching and handling salamanders and geckos. Lizards and salamanders may drop their tails in defense when they fear for their life, or you may accidentally break a tail off when handling them. This can hinder their ability to survive and to breed, since energy may be stored in the tail and tail-less animals may be seen as a bad choice of a mate.
Amphibians should be kept moist and your hands should be clean of all chemicals when you handle them. Ideally, you should wear plastic gloves.
If you pick up an animal that has just eaten, chances are good it will regurgitate that meal - a meal which might have taken the animal many days to find and catch.
Some frightened desert animals, such as toads and tortoises, will release their stored water supply as a defense, which could kill them from dehydration well after you release them.
Keeping a herp in direct sunlight for too long while you photograph it can cause it to overheat and die.
Unfortunately, it is nearly always necessary to pick up herps you find underneath rocks or other heavy objects so you don't crush them. After picking them up, you should return the object then release the herp and let it crawl back under it - often you can dig a small channel to let them use. So don't go around randomly
turning over heavy rocks if you don't have the time to put in the effort to protect whatever you find. (This applies especially those of you who use tools.)
- Don't Destroy Natural Habitat or natural features of any kind.
Don't break up rocks, logs, stumps or other natural features (this is illegal in California) and leave the habitat as close to the way you found it as possible.
Replace all the cover objects you turn over as close as possible to the way you found it, (and make sure you don't kill anything when doing so!) Rolling over a rock will change the microhabitat underneath, where the humidity is higher than the surroundings, and where small invertebrates, which are food sources for herps or their prey, have been established. Re-seating the rock as you found it will lessen the time needed to restore this microhabitat. This even applies to artificial cover such as boards, tin, and trash. It takes time for AC to get "seasoned" with no vegetation beneath it, and cracks and holes which allow herps to shelter effectively. Replacing AC into its original position will let it continue to be good herp habitat, and an effective animal trap.
- Use Tools Only With Caution
Tools such as crowbars, potato rakes, claw hammers, and Stumprippers make it very easy to quickly flip and run, and leave without replacing the cover, so if you use a tool, don't be lazy and overconfident. I have seen too many herpers flip something with their tool that they couldn't flip with their bare hands, then they are either too lazy or unable to put it back the way they found it because they used a tool to begin with. (This is even more of a problem when several herpers are competing for a limited number of cover objects to look under so they race from one to the other too quickly.) Never use a tool to break up stumps and logs or to rip bark or dig and tear up rocks or duff. (I use my "Stumpripper" to overturn boards and tin and to pick up snakes and I find it an excellent lightweight tool for those uses, but I would never use it to destroy logs and I hate the name.)
Follow All Laws that Apply to Herping and Do Not Collect More than the Legal Limit.
It's your responsibility to know the laws regarding hunting for wildlife. These laws include rules about which animals you can pursue and capture, how many you can collect, and by what means you can catch them. A lot of herping is done at night on roads using the lights of an automobile. In some states there are laws regarding "spotlighting" at night that might include using your auto headlights, so be aware of these laws. In some states, such as Texas, it may be illegal to hunt at all on the public right-of-ways, which means you cannot handle any herps found on roadways, day or night.
While I agree that it is absurd to make a photographer buy an expensive hunting or fishing license, or both, just to temporarily restrain an animal for pictures, you need to be aware if you decide not to buy a license because you aren't collecting but only taking pictures, that saying "I'm just taking pictures" is a common excuse which is also used by illegal poachers, and wildlife law enforcement officers may not believe you, even when you are telling the truth that you are photographing and not collecting. If you decide not to buy a license, it might be best to observe and photograph herps without handling them.
The longer I herp, the more I prefer not to capture animals to photograph them when possible. (This is rare, especially with snakes, but sometimes it works.) While it is easier to get a great photograph by capturing an animal, cooling it down, and photographing it with a controlled background or set, I find these staged shots less interesting than those taken in situ. When I do capture an animal, I try to pose it near the point of capture. I also find it more challenging and rewarding to follow and observe an animal without capturing it.
Think About All of the Consequences Before You Take an Animal From the Wild to be a Pet.
Make sure you can house and feed it and provide it with all the care it needs for the rest of its life (which could be many years.) Many captives do very well and might be better off in a cage for the rest of their life than they would be risking basking on a highway every day, or getting buried under a housing development, and there is a lot one can learn from keeping and breeding herps. However, many captives do not survive and end up suffering a slow and painful death from uncontrolled parasites, inadequate environmental conditions, or improper nutrition. Many don't even survive the trip home due to overheating or dessication, and some escape from improperly closed containers and probably die later from ending up in inhospitable habitat. Make sure you have containers or cloth snake bags that will not harm animals if they are left in them for an extended period, and remember to close them properly. (Zip-lock plastic bags are best used only to restrain a herp temporarily, not for long-term storage. After use, the bags can be thrown away so no two animals are put in the same container.)
Some herpers who have travelled far like to collect animals to trade or sell (whether legally or illegally) to defray the cost of their herping trip or of the licenses they had to buy. This is hard to argue with, considering the high price of licenses, gas, and lodging, (and the outrageously high price of hunting and fishing licenses for out-of-state residents only encourages this behavior) but I would urge these herpers to try to consider these expenses to be part of the costs of their herping vacation and not to worry about recouping them. You don't bring back tropical fruit from Hawaii to pay for your vacation, do you?
Return Herps to the Exact Place You Found Them.
If you pick up a herp to photograph it, return it to the exact place you found it. Unless you return a herp to exactly the same spot where it was found soon after finding it, the herp will probably have trouble surviving where you dump it. Even if the new habitat appears to be suitable, the herp will probably end up in the territory of another member of its species which will force it to move away.
Herps have a home territory that they have spent their entire life getting to know and when they are dumped at a different location they are then at a great loss in their efforts to survive. They have learned how to compete with other individuals for access to food and shelter and are at a loss when they can't find their way back to their home area. This may be more of a probem with herps with a small home range and limited mobility, such as salamanders. I've seen too many herpers, out of laziness, collect salamanders, throw them all in the same container, take photographs of them in the same spot, then dump them all under one or two logs nearby. They think the salamanders will be fine, but this relocation will undoubtably interfere with their chances for survival.
(I can't site any studies to confirm this, but it' just common sense.)
The best thing for the animal you find is to observe it, photograph it, do whatever you want to do with it, then leave it exactly where you found it. But many herpers don't want to "waste time" doing that so they take an animal to their motel or campsite to photograph it later in a more controlled environment when they have plenty of time, then they release it the next day. Sometimes they pick up a snake off a road at night then drive to a safe place to pull over, which might be miles away. (This may or may not even be legal, depending on where it's done.) Either of these strategies can be OK if the animal is later released at the point of capture, but unfortunately, many herpers don't bother to record the location where they found the animal, or they don't go back to the location to release it because it is out of their way. This is lazy, irresponsible, and unethical. (I have been with so many herpers who do this, that I avoid herping with a group anymore.) I recommend that you either record the location by marking its mileage from a particular point you can get back to to retrace your path, or write down the GPS coordinates. You can also mark the spot so you can find it again using rocks or branches or a line in the dirt or a small flag or a gigantic flashing neon light or whatever you want - just do it!
If you return a nocturnal animal during daylight, make sure you can put it somewhere it can get out of the sun, prefereably a hole or rock pile or under some kind of cover.
Don't Release Captive Animals into the Wild.
It's illegal, cruel, and unethical, but it's becoming more and more common due to the popularity of herps in the pet trade.
Some captive herps can survive being dumped into unknown territory, but many will not, due to competition with other animals or an ignorance of where to find food, water, and shelter. There is also the possibility your captive could spread parasites or disease into wild populations. The Chytrid fungus, which is devestating amphibians around the world, is thought to have been spread initially by the release of captive African Clawed Frogs used in scientific research. It is also frequently reported (but not substantiated) that a virus was spread to wild Desert Tortoise population from released captive tortoises. Deadly funguses that are now threatening snakes and salamanders may also be attributed to released captives. The salamander fungus is so deadly that laws are being enacted to stop the importation and exportation of salamanders in the pet trade.
Respect Private Property but
Know Your Rights About Access to Public Lands
Don't Trespass! Enter private property only with permission.
Sometimes, if you tell a landowner you want to hunt for snakes, they will let you.
Be aware that you can legally enter some public land even if it is fenced off. Watch for signs, or the lack of them, indicating access and access restrictions, and check maps released by organizations such as the Bureau of Land Management or the National Forest Service. It's easy to be fooled into thinking your public land is private and off-limits. Beware that some private landowners with property near the public land will tell you that the public land is off-limits, out of fear of having people tresspass on their own land.
Don't Collect Herps from Public Land Where Collecting is not Allowed.
Every time someone is caught doing this, it promotes the image that is so common among public park employees that anyone who shows an interest in herps is an illegal poacher. This misunderstanding is epidemic and is almost always cited as a reason for herp declines. So even if you are only hiking in a park hoping to see and/or photograph herps, be careful not to attract the attention of other visitors or park employees who might think you are a poacher. (I think that anybody who walks into a State or National Park holding a snake stick or other obvious herp hunting tools, is asking for trouble, but not all herpers agree with me.)
Educate People You Encounter in the Field About Herps.
(Except for those park employees :) This gives the non-herping public a better view of herpers and herps. If people find you holding an animal and ask you questions, try to take some time to give them a better understanding of the animals and of the people who are crazy enough to want to go search for them. You might also explain to them that you have purchased a license that legally allows you to handle or collect the herp when you encounter someone who thinks you are breaking the law. But don't use herps to scare or intimidate people, or to prove how brave you are.
Don't Disturb Research Sites.
If you find some buried or covered-up pitfall traps or a line of intentionally-laid-out cover (a board line) or any other type of study equipment, don't mess with them. I usually do look underneath any artificial cover that someone else has laid out, but I don't move it around, and I always replace it as I found it. If a site looks like an unauthorized dump site, then moving tin or boards into better locations is not unethical, in my opinion. That's how most board lines were set up to begin with - they are essentially just improved illegal dump sites.
Don't Get Upset When Artificial Cover You Laid Out is Removed.
Don't get too worked up if you find that your board line has been moved or degraded. It's easy to immediately blame other herpers (for some reason, herpers love to attack each other) but there can be many other explanations for what happened, including the fact that your boards are simply garbage to 99.99 per cent of the people out there who encounter them. I was herping with a guy once who freaked out that all his boards were picked up. When I pointed out that they were used to make shelters for a group of homeless people, he didn't stay upset for long.
Be Careful When Sharing Information About Locations, in Public and in Private.
You should always realize that when you tell someone about a good location to find herps, or a location of arificial cover that produces herps, even if you tell them not to tell anyone, they WILL tell someone, ALWAYS, and that that someone will tell someone else, with the caveat not to tell anyone, etc. etc, and soon everyone will know the location. It's just human nature. Unfortunately, I'm also human, so don't tell me either.
Beware That Photos You Share with the Public Might Contain Exact Location Information
(This is more of a concern with herps that congregate in specific areas such as den sites, or with small populations of endangered animals.) Be careful not to show recognizable landmarks in your photos that might lead unscrupulous people to a particular location. Some herpers recommend that you avoid publically sharing pictures of herps that include EXIF data - information that shows GPS information that shows exactly where the photo was taken. You should make sure to scrape all such geodata from your pictures before posting them somewhere that collectors might use that data to find your location. This might sound like overkill or more blame-putting on collectors to distract us from the much more serious problem of habitat destruction, but it has become a topic of concern now that everybody posts pictures of herps on Facebook and Instagram and wildlife reporting sites such as iNature. It should not be too hard to turn off GPS embedding and anything else that transmits location before visiting a site that you think should be protected from strangers. This article on Motherboard (10/26/17) explains how to do it.
Can We Go Herping For Our Own Pleasure and Education, Or Must We Feel Obligated to Collect Data and Report Our Findings?
Sean Graham created a controversy with herpers with his article
Nobody Cares About Your Lifers: How to Make Herping Count. (Living Alongside Wildlife, 10/2/17)
He does bring up some good points in the piece and in his subsequent response to the controversy he started, so I recommend you read them and make up your own mind. As someone who has been herping before the invention of the internet, I never got in the habit of reporting my finds except on this web site, but I recognize that such "Citizen Science" efforts help to foster an appreciation for herps so I do support it, though I do have concerns about sharing exact locations with the public.
Don't get too territorial about "your" herping spots.
This is an emotional topic for many herpers. You might think a board spot is your spot or a specific road is your road, but chances are other people know about it, and probably knew about it before you did. If you find your AC has been moved or rocks have not been replaced, it's easy to get angry and assume it was done by other herpers, but the damage could be caused by animals or others such as bug hunters, mushroom hunters, rock collectors, and even homeless people who collected the boards and tin to construct a shelter (I've seen this happen.) I once put an angry note under one of a group of rocks I used to find rolled over and not replaced year after year, hoping that someone would read it and start putting the rocks back. The next spring the rocks were rolled over again and the note was gone. Some people just don't care. Every time I see them, I return these rocks to their original position. I always feel angry that I'm just helping the morons find herps the next time they come, but ultimately I know that it's the herps I'm helping. I almost never find any herps under these rocks anymore, probably due to the fact that they do not stay in one place.
Whenever I come across a nicely laid-out aritficial cover (A/C) site I mentally thank those who came before me and paved the way with their boards and tin. I make an effort to respect the A/C and put it back the way I found it so the herps will continue to use it as shelter and so that others can enjoy it as I have. The herps don't need it - they will survive very well without it, but without A/C we may never see them.
When road cruising at night, pull as far off the road as you can when you stop and turn off your brights!
This one should be obvious, but it isn't. And don't block the entire road with more than one vehicle when you stop to look at a herp on the road! Lately I have been wearing one of those reflecting vests that bike riders and construction workers and the people who bring in the shopping carts at supermarkets wear. Yes, I know I look stupid. But wearing these vests will be the law in Texas soon and it's a good way to keep from getting run over and from terrifying other drivers who suddenly drive up on a person on a deserted road at night. I even put out one of those reflective triangles behind the vehicle as advance warning that there's a car there if I'm going to park for longer than a few minutes.
When road cruising at night, don't intentionally race in front of another herping vehicle, then slow down in order to be in front.
Turning around and going in the other direction is probably a better option than pulling in front or dropping back. Of course, sometimes you don't know if a slow vehicle in front of you is herping or not, so don't get upset if someone passes you then you find out they're herping ahead of you.
Stop and talk to other people you see road cruising.
I know you're in a hurry to see as much as you can, or to find an uncommon snake before someone else gets it first, and you don't want to share your secrets with anyone else, but finding out what has been seen on the road on a particular night can be helpful, and you can meet some interesting people - and maybe some not so interesting. Learning that a certain species that I was seeking had been seen on the road on a particular night has encouraged me to continue searching until I found it, even when I was losing interest. Unfortunately, you may also find out that everyone else is finding the good stuff when you're not, which is a drag, but other times you may be the one finding everything good.
Be aware that road cruising for herps looks suspicious.
Driving slowly, starting and stopping and making U-turns on a desolate road at night is not normal driving behavior. It is suspicious behavior to both law enforcement officers and to non-herper, especially near the border with Mexico. When you get stopped, politely tell them what you are doing and don't take it personally. Sure, it sucks to be stopped and detained, but they're just doing their job so don't take it out on them. The quicker you convince them you're not drunk or driving around looking for illegal immigrants or shipments of smuggled drugs, the quicker they'll release you and you can get back to herping. Some Officers will even tell you about roads where they see a lot of snakes.
When road cruising at night in areas near the Mexican Border you will be watched and followed by the Border Patrol and other Law Enforcement agents.
To them, it looks like you are slowly searching for someone or something to pick up, which could be criminal behavior. They will tailgate you with their bright lights and when you pull over to let them go by, they'll put their red lights on and ask you if you know why they pulled you over. Resist the urge to laugh and tell them that it was you who pulled them over. (I have never gotten a good response to that joke.) I have found most Border Patrol officers to be nice and polite, (but there are exceptions, such as many of those at Organ Pipe or other high-stress high-crime border areas) but nevertheless, even when you explain to them what you are doing, you are likely to be pulled over again and again by different officers. It's their job, which means it's your job to understand and expect it to happen. One night near the border in New Mexico, I was pulled over six times by six different vehicles, including the Sherriff, the DEA, several Border Patrol vehicles, and some plain clothes guy in an unmarked black vehicle who wouldn't tell me who he worked for. (The Men in Black was my guess.) One agent eventually told us that we looked extra suspicious because we were driving a rented SUV with tinted windows, which is apprently the drug-smuggler's preferred vehicle. Then he told us about a different road where he had seen a lot of snakes. Sometimes you can get good herping tips from these guys, and if you see any suspicious behavior or encounter immigrants who want to surremder, let them know.
What should you do when you find a dead snake on a popular herping road?
The answer to this one is not easy. Most herpers remove dead herps from the road so they don't stop for them again, but if you know that there are other cars on a road at night, you might want to leave a DOR on the road for others to see it. It's up to you. I once saw several snakes lined up across a well-used road in Texas, put there by someone who picked up and kept every dead snake they found. This was more a practical joke than it was an attempt to communicate, but it let me see a couple of species I hadn't yet seen that night.
Herping is not a competitive sport.
Not yet, anyway, unless you count Rattlesnake Roundups. (I remember seeing a roundup covered on one of the weekend sports shows many year ago where they competed to find the most snakes.) But many herpers are very competitive when they are in the field.
I believe that a lot of habitat damage and unreplaced rocks, logs, and AC is caused by herpers who are in a hurry to find animals before someone else gets to them first. Animals are sometimes killed because of it and habitat is ruined. This hurried behavior comes from the collecting mentality, which has been carried over into the life-listing mentality.
Every herper has his or her own rules for "counting" herps they see and putting them on their life list. Some only count an animal that they see first, others must find and catch something to count it, others have to be there when an animal is found, even if they didn't find it, etc. etc. This competition can lead to speed-herping behavior that can be damaging to the habitat. It's also part of the fun and challenge of herping, so just remember to replace everything when you're done and all is good. If you're not competitive, you can also use the competitive behavior of other herpers in your group to your advantage: Sometimes I let the others run ahead and do the climbing and heavy lifting, and wait until they find something good to photograph, then I take my turn photographing it, because I don't care about the bragging rights of seeing it first. You can also help your companions by understanding the rules they play by by letting them go ahead or by not grabbing an animal they need to see and calling them over to grab it for themselves.