A gaggle of biologists, zookeepers, college students and government officials traipsed through the Deep South longleaf pine forest one recent, gorgeous spring morning carefully clutching white pillowcases.

They were looking for holes. More specifically, gopher tortoise burrows into which they could deposit their precious cargo of Eastern indigo snakes, aka "Emperors of the Forest."

The smooth, black, long — longest in North America — indigo snake is listed as federally threatened under the Endangered Species Act and in dire need of propagation and restoration to historical habitats. An all-hands-on-deck approach towards saving the much-loved, non-venomous indigo from extinction creates odd bedfellows.

"There he goes," said Tony Brady, a fishery biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as a snake slithered from his pillowcase into a burrow in Conecuh National Forest in Alabama. "When we release them, we know we’ve done our job."

That Brady, a freshwater mussel expert, is helping to re-introduce snakes into the wild is a bit odd. That all this work takes place at a fish hatchery isn’t typical. That the hatchery helped raise the snakes from a young age is, well, unique to say the least.

"We really broke the mold," said Brady, deputy project leader at Welaka National Fish Hatchery (Welaka NFH) in Florida. "We are no longer your grandfather’s fish hatchery."

The initial indigo goal is 300 snakes reintroduced in Alabama, and 300 snakes in Florida. The more ambitious objective, though, is to recreate a mostly lost Southern ecosystem where indigos, gopher tortoises, gopher frogs, red-cockaded woodpeckers and other animals frolic amidst forests of longleaf pines.

"What we’ve been able to accomplish through this indigo snake project reflects the value our fisheries program and its employees bring to the service’s conservation work," said Allan Brown, the assistant regional director for the service’s fisheries program in the Southeast. "We do a great deal of work to boost fisheries across the Southeast working with a broad group of partners. This is an one example of the positive impact we can have beyond fish."

"Indigos are one of the few iconic species that offer a magnificent opportunity to capture people’s attention," said Michele Elmore, the service’s lead indigo biologist. "Yet people in the South have become disconnected from the fascinating longleaf ecosystem. The South was built on longleaf pine."

Adding the apex predator

department fish and wildlife service signage A sign at Conecuh National Forest in Alabama warning visitors to avoid harming the protected Eastern indigo snake. (Photo: Dan Chapman/USFWS)

Longleaf forests once covered 90 million acres of coastal plains in a swath stretching from Virginia to Texas. The pine’s ecosystem is one of the most biologically diverse habitats in the world; only tropical rainforests are more fecund.

Roughly 600 different plants, insects, birds and mammals — 30 federally threatened or endangered — inhabit the towering pines and wiregrass bottoms of the longleaf habitat. The tortoise’s burrow alone serves as a home for maybe 350 species — including eastern indigo snakes — and particularly during the winter and fire seasons.

They are so-called apex predators that sit atop their local food chain with little fear of being devoured by others. Their appetite — rodents and venomous snakes like copperheads and rattlesnakes — ensures a healthy ecological balance for the forest’s many creatures.

Indigos, with a historic range that stretches from southeast Mississippi across south Alabama and Florida and up into southeast Georgia, are beautiful, docile snakes. They can reach nine feet in length with lustrous skin covered in iridescent blue-black scales.

The snakes, though, are elusive. And their home is under siege.

Loggers felled the longleaf forests in the 19th century. The need for turpentine, a favorite ingredient of the maritime industry, further decimated the trees. Suppression of wildfires destroyed the forests’ healthy underbelly. Pine tree plantations, row crops and suburban sprawl replaced longleaf forests. Roads — a death trap for indigo snakes — have further fragmented the ecosystem.

Today, maybe 4 percent — less than 5 million acres — of longleaf pine remains. The last wild indigo was spotted in the Florida Panhandle in 1999. In Alabama, the black serpent hasn’t been seen since the 1950s.

Growing snakes alongside fish

Fort Stewart, an Army base in eastern Georgia, is a relative Garden of Eden for indigos. A decade ago biologists captured some pregnant indigos at Fort Stewart and, after they laid their eggs, returned the females to the wild and, voila, the snake propagation program was underway.

The Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation, a reptile and amphibian nonprofit, took the propagation lead. Orianne hatches snakes in its 2,500-foot "herpetarium" (now managed by the Central Florida Zoo in Sanford). It bred the 12 indigos released in July 2017 at the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, the first installment of the planned dispersal of 300 indigos into the wilds of Florida. It also bred the the snakes released at Conecuh in 2017.

"We need more snakes," said Elmore. "Just the sheer quantity of snakes we need to reach our goals a is big challenge."

Which is where the Welaka fish hatchery comes in.

Brady and Drew Becker, another service biologist, were getting acquainted over beers at a meeting in West Virginia one September 2016 evening when the seemingly hare-brained notion of "head-starting" indigos came up. Catherine Phillips, who heads up the service’s Panama City office, had earlier raised the idea with Ken Blick, the project leader at Welaka.

One thing led to another and …

"Before I got hired at Welaka, Ken says, 'What do you know about raising snakes?'" recalled Brady, the mollusk specialist. "I said, 'Um, nothing, but I can learn.' It sounded like fun, something different."

Maybe growing indigos alongside sturgeon and catfish isn’t all that odd after all. They’re raising Ozark hellbender salamanders at the Greers Ferry NFH in Arkansas, alligator snapping turtles at the Natchitoches NFH in Louisiana, gopher frogs at Warm Springs NFH in Georgia, and a variety of freshwater mussels at hatcheries in seven southeastern states.

But snakes?

"Some people are just deadly afraid of snakes, but I’m not freaked out by them," Brady said. "It’s not like they’re rattlesnakes and one wrong move gets you a trip to the hospital."

Welaka received 10 year-and-a-half-old snakes from the Orianne Center in late January. The hatchery staff had already removed fish tanks (used for American shad) and other equipment from a section of the hatchery’s holding house and added walls, racks and tubs. Indigo tubs are cleaned each morning, the snakes transferred to another tub while soiled newspapers are tossed and replaced.

They’re tested for parasites. They’re fed a hearty diet of dead mice, quail chicks and rainbow trout. They grow to about four-and-a-half feet long, gain a couple of pounds and await transfer to Conecuh or Apalachicola Bluffs, a Nature Conservancy property.

"The old stereotype of fish hatcheries doing fish and fish alone no longer holds," Brady said. "We’re getting into non-traditional things that shows we can adapt to any situation we’re entrusted with."

Letting nature "do its thing"

A teenage girl holds an Eastern Indigo Snake next to a Nature Conservancy sign. Eastern indigo snakes were reintroduced to the Apilachicola Bluffs in 2017. Click here to read more about this initiative. (Photo: Dirk Stevenson/The Nature Conservancy)

Indigo release day is like the Super Bowl for reptile lovers who waited near-giddily one early May morning at Conecuh for the herpetological equivalent of a touchdown. Roughly 40 biologists and other reptile lovers from the Fish and Wildlife Service, Auburn University, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and a variety of Southern zoos crowded around the prized and pampered creatures. The Central Florida Zoo and Zoo Tampa — more indigo head-starting sites — contributed five snakes each to the day’s festivities.

Down the hill in clumps of five and six went the snake fans in search of turtle burrows. They wandered among longleaf pines, bluejack oaks, dwarf palmettos and sparkleberry bushes below a natural sinkhole.

"I found a hole," came the cry from an eager zoologist, and all would gather around, cameras and iPhones at the ready, to capture an indigo’s squirm into a burrow.

One-hundred and fifty-seven indigos have been released into the 84,000-acre Conecuh forest the last eight years. Each had been weighed, measured and electronically tagged so that recaptured snakes can be studied.

Jim Godwin, an Auburn biologist and indigo expert, lauds the well-run, many-partnered indigo program. The snakes are finding food, wintering in the burrows and may be reproducing.

"But we don’t have any young snakes captured from the wild that we didn’t initially release," said Godwin with the university’s Museum of Natural History. "We may not know success of this project for years to come. It could be 30, 40 years until visitors come to the national forest and regularly see them. We’re hopeful, but the data is not there yet."

Welaka awaits the next batch of indigo snakes to be raised and released. Other release sites are being considered. Each site would get 30 snakes each year.

"Like most things, there are growing pains," Elmore said. "But we’ve come a long way. We still have a lot to learn about the snakes."

This story was originally written for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is republished here with permission. Daniel Chapman is a public affairs specialist with the Southeast Region in Atlanta, Georgia.

Dan Chapman Daniel Chapman is a public affairs specialist with the Southeast Region of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.