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Rare snakes from south Cascades part of illegal trade

Three men have been sentenced in federal court for illegally collecting and trading wild snakes caught in 11 states and Canada — including Southern Oregon — following a three-year investigation called Operation Kingsnake.

The men captured hundreds of wild snakes, including seven California mountain kingsnakes in the south Cascades during 2011, and transported them across state lines illegally, violating the federal Lacey Act.

The Lacey Act bans the transportation across state lines of illegally obtained wildlife, and the cases here are all misdemeanors.

The rare, bright-colored snakes look like coral snakes and are listed as a state sensitive species classified as vulnerable and considered rare in Southern Oregon, according to Oregon law. As protected non-game wildlife, the snake cannot be possessed alive or dead.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Gerard Kruse in Douglaston, New York, shipped three illegally collected California mountain kingsnakes to reptile breeder and collector Michael Collalto, of Rochester, New York, who kept them at his house.

From 2008 through 2012, Collalto was part of a group of individuals who trafficked hundreds of illegally collected snakes to or from Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut and Canada, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Collalto pleaded guilty Monday in federal court in Rochester to four Lacey Act violations for his role in the conspiracy.

U.S. District Judge Charles J. Siragusa placed Collalto on probation for four years with special conditions, including forfeiture of his snakes and being banned from the collection, sale and trade of reptiles and amphibians, records show.

Collalto was also ordered to pay a $5,000 fine to the Lacey Act Reward Account and complete 300 hours of community service. The Lacey Act Reward Account is used to pay for rewards for information about wildlife crimes and care for live animals seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Kruse was sentenced earlier to three years' probation with similar conditions and fines after pleading guilty to 13 Lacey Act violations, while Shannon Brown, of Bishop, California, received four years of probation with similar conditions for buying, selling and trading illegally obtained snakes with Kruse, according to FWS.

In the south Cascades, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists rarely get reports of people seeing California mountain kingsnakes in the wild.

"I've only seen one myself in the wild," said Steve Niemela, an ODFW wildlife biologist in White City. "They're incredibly beautiful, but we don't see many of them despite being so colorful."

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

This California mountain kingsnake was smuggled from the southern Cascades in Oregon. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service