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'Watchdog' helps recover rare kingsnake from Medford pet store

A rare and protected snake will get a one-way ride back to the wild today thanks to a wildlife "watchdog" with a good eye for reptiles and a healthy knowledge of Oregon native critter laws.

An Oregon State Police trooper Monday seized a California mountain kingsnake from The Reptile Guyz shop on Riverside Avenue in Medford, where it was on display the past two weeks but not labeled as for sale, according to the OSP.

The brightly colored, 2-foot-long snake that looks like a coral snake is listed as a state sensitive species and classified as vulnerable and considered rare in Southern Oregon, according to Oregon law. As protected non-game wildlife, this snake cannot be possessed alive or dead.

The snake was spotted there by an anonymous wildlife "watchdog" who is part of an informal cadre of armchair herpetologists and fish-o-philes who keep their eyes trained on the retail pet industry, where wildlife officials say the trafficking of illegal species is more common than the public realizes.

"We rely on watchdogs and other members of the public for these kinds of things, to go into stores and tell us what's going on," says Mark Vargas, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District wildlife biologist.

"We got a few people who like "herps" and know their herps pretty well, and we have some people who know their fish," Vargas says.

The shop's owner, 31-year-old Daniel Prince of rural Jacksonville, was cited for the unlawful possession of a prohibited species, a violation that carries a $110 fine, OSP Trooper Josh Nugent says.

Nugent says Prince told him someone found the snake in the Applegate Lake area about two weeks ago and gave it to the store.

Prince was not at his shop Monday afternoon and could not be located for comment.

The snake was turned over Monday to Vargas, who says he plans to release it today somewhere in the Illinois Valley.

The red, black, yellow and white snake is more rare in Oregon than the common kingsnake, which sports black and white bands, Vargas says. It is nonvenomous and completely harmless.

Oregon's so-called "Wildlife Integrity" laws ban the possession of all sorts of non-game native and non-native wildlife, with some, such as snapping turtles, legal for possession with an ODFW permit. Pet stores can trade in captive bred animals such as king snakes, but stores must have paperwork proving an animal was captive bred before it can be sold.

Rick Boatner, the ODFW's invasive species and wildlife integrity coordinator, says it's "fairly common" to find violations of these wildlife rules in pet stores and even among members of the general public hawking pets for sale on the Internet.

Boatner says he inspected four pet stores in the Eugene area last winter and half had violations. Others get turned in by members of the general public, and pet-store operators will even rat each other out for offering illegal wildlife for sale, Boatner says.

Stores offer these critters because the public wants them, Boatner says. Often those caught claim they didn't know possessing these animals was illegal, he says.

"They try to play the ignorant card pretty quickly," Boatner says. "They always tell you they didn't understand the rules."

Vargas says he gets anywhere from two to a half-dozen such cases annually in the Rogue Valley. Boatner says it's unknown how prevalent it is in Oregon.

"The illegal trade in reptiles is a huge problem in the United States," Boatner says. "I'd like to do more of these things. It's just the lack of time."

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

An illegally captured California mountain kingsnake wraps around the hand of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildife biologist Mark Vargas Monday. Vargas said he will release the snake in the Illinois Valley.