By Patti Dozier

THOMASVILLE — Four West Georgia men are charged in what a state official described as “an extremely uncommon case.”

The men were arrested Thursday, Jan. 28, on the Silver Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in south Decatur County at Lake Seminole.

The suspects are charged with destroying wildlife habitat. Information about the case was released Tuesday by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Arrested were Robert C. Hrn, 24, Shiloh; Jesse L. Masters, 18, Columbus; David M. Masters, 59, Fortson; and James E. Warren, 58, Ellerslie.

The misdemeanor cases against the men will be disposed of in State Court of Decatur County.

On Jan. 28, a DNR wildlife official learned people were possibly hunting rattlesnakes on a Silver Lake tract. As the DNR employee approached the scene, one of the men immediately placed a gasoline can in a truck.

The DNR wildlife technician saw two garden hoses and snake-catching equipment at the site, an incident report shows, and the men admitted they were hunting rattlesnakes.

When the technician asked the men how they were hunting the serpents, they explained the process of checking gopher tortoise burrows with a garden hose.

The reports showed the men demonstrated the technique on a nearby burrow by inserting a hose into the burrow to listen.

“Then if movement was detected they would insert a treble hook on a hose attempting to snag it,” according to the report.

The men told the technician they put gasoline in a burrow if they do not hear anything.

The technician told the men they were breaking the law by putting gasoline in a den, nest or burrow to recover an animal. They also were destroying the burrow.

The DNR employee did not find snakes in a search of the premises.

Rick Lavender, DNR spokesman, said information about the arrests was not released until now because personnel have been away from work and/or in training.

An incident report e-mailed at the time of the arrests was incomplete and erroneous and should not have been disseminated, Lavender explained.

“It is an extremely uncommon case,” Lavender said, pointing out that snake-hunting activity is difficult to detect because of the vast wilderness in which the activity takes place.

The investigation of the case did not reveal the suspects were hunting snakes to deliver to the Whigham Rattlesnake Roundup, which was two days after the arrests.

Lavender said it is against Georgia law to disturb or destroy natural habitats for wildlife, with the exception of poisonous snakes. However, since the early 1990s, DNR has had a policy in regard to the law.

According to the policy, it is illegal to gas gopher tortoise holes for any reason. In addition to a number of other creatures, the burrows are home to not only the state-protected gopher tortoise, but to the state- and federally protected eastern indigo snake, whose favorite food is the venomous among its kind.

In addition to the gopher tortoise, Silver Lake WMA, where the arrests were made, supports 19 groups of red-cockaded woodpeckers, a significant population of Bachman’s sparrows, nesting bald eagles and many other priority species.

The 8,398-acre tract has mature longleaf pine, mixed pine, hardwoods and wetlands.

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