Blackbeard Refuge Manager Boots Bowhunters Over Dead Rattlesnake

GON Staff | November 12, 2003

Bowhunters on a Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge bow hunt were kicked off the island by an angry refuge manager who closed the hunt citing safety concerns over a dead rattlesnake.

A total of 174 hunters were on the island for the three-day hunt, which began Thursday, October 23, 2003. Thursday evening a dead eastern diamondback rattlesnake was found coiled around the base of a commode in the menʼs washroom.

Friday morning, refuge manager Robert Cail called a mandatory meeting at 5 a.m. He displayed the dead snake to the hunters and demanded that the person responsible for killing the snake take responsibility by noon or he threatened to end the hunt.

Rattlesnakes, and all other animals not specifically identified as legal game animals are protected on federal refuges.

When the person who killed the snake had not been identified by noon Friday, Mr. Cail cancelled the remaining day and a half of the hunt, citing safety issues.

The 174 angry hunters, some who had traveled from as far as Texas, Florida, Alabama and North Carolina, paid non-resident hunting fees, paid to be ferried to the island, paid for motels, food and lodging and equipment to attend the hunt, were kicked off over a dead snake.

“It sets a dangerous precedent,” said bowhunter Jeff Langston of Dallas, Ga. “A lot of these hunters canʼt afford to come back and go to the expense of getting to the island when there is the risk that it will happen again. Whatʼs to keep PETA from coming out and throwing a snake in the menʼs room?”

The Blackbeard Island bow hunt, in its 57th year, is the longest-running managed bow hunt on federal property. No U.S. Fish & Wildlife official that GON interviewed could recall any refuge hunt anywhere ever being cancelled because of a safety issue.

“There was no safety concern,” said GON publisher Steve Burch. “How is a dead snake that has been removed a safety concern? And if there had been a justified safety issue, why were the hunters allowed to hunt on Friday morning?”

According to Donnie Browning, project leader for the coastal refuges in Georgia, and the spokesman for Mr. Cail, said Cail made the closure without consulting any superior.

“This is not typical of how we operate,” said Browning. “Once the snake was removed, the safety issue was removed. Typically, we would have chosen other actions than to close the hunt.”

Bill Grabill, regional refuge supervisor in Atlanta, said, “The authority that Robert thought he was operating under was in the interest of safety. I am not going to defend that. The threat had been removed. In this case, the incident didn’t really cross the threshold (for a closure).”

Grabill said policy has been changed so that refuge managers no longer have unilateral authority to close a hunt. Both Browning and Grabill said disciplinary action would be taken against Cail, but they declined to speculate on what course that action might take.

On November 7, FWS Regional Director Sam Hamilton defended Cailʼs action in a written statement, saying, “Mr. Cail was acting within his authority to terminate the hunt in the interest of public safety in this remote location.”

Hamiltonʼs statement announced that an extra bow hunt has been added at Blackbeard this year to make up for lost hunting opportunity. That hunt has been scheduled for December 18-20.

The second bow hunt of the season is scheduled for December 4-6.

“There were 173 hunters at Blackbeard who were victims of Mr. Cailʼs poor judgement,” said an Atlanta-area hunter who was booted from the island. “If I go back in December and find out that he is a trail guide at Okefenokee, I wouldn’t be disappointed.”


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