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Timber rattlers are deadly – but threatened

By Andrew Goldstein, Point Park News Service:

Timber rattlesnakes. Photo: www.fish.state.pa.us
Timber rattlesnakes. Photo: www.fish.state.pa.us

The timber rattlesnake poses a danger to humans on the receiving end of its venomous bite.

But humans pose a greater threat to the timber rattler. Its population is depleting because of the advancement of civilized society cutting away at the snake’s once widespread habitat.

“Compared to what it used to be, it’s not common at all,” said Rulon Clark, a San Diego State University biology professor who studies timber rattlers. “It used to be a dominant animal throughout Eastern-Central forests, but its range is a skeleton of its former range.”

The timber rattler is a candidate for the endangered species list in Pennsylvania. Candidate species are those that may not be on the “sick list” yet, but have suspicious symptoms, according to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

While it is legal to capture candidate species at some specific times, there are strict guidelines that must be followed.

The timber rattlesnake has about a month-and-a-half-long season and the annual possession limit is one – except for regulated hunts, which require special permits, the Commission said. Anyone who catches a candidate species – even a rattlesnake – should release it “immediately and unharmed to the waters or other area from which it was taken,” according to the state.

Timber rattlers declined over the past few decades because of unrestricted commercial and sport hunting, den raiding and land development, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Because land development is one of the major contributors to the diminishing population of timber rattlers, questions arise about the impact of gas drilling industry in Pennsylvania on the snakes. But is it reasonable to blame gas drilling for killing off the snake population?

“From what we’ve seen so far, endangered species are not really being impacted by the industry,” said Chris Urban, chief of the Natural Diversity Section of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. “They just don’t occur where the industry is right now.”

The Fish and Boat Commission works with the drilling industry to mitigate issues with the timber rattler. The Commission recommends hiring a qualified biologist to come to the drilling site and move the snake out of harm’s way. This not only protects the snake, but also the workers who might otherwise come in contact with it.

“That’s been a recommendation they’ve pretty much taken up and gone with,” Urban said. “Their interest is to protect their workers from a venomous snake.”

The timber rattler is one of 21 venomous snakes in Pennsylvania, according to the Fish and Boat Commission. While the timber rattler can kill with its bite, it is not aggressive, Clark said.

“It’s defensive,” he said. “A snake doesn’t want to be found by larger animals; it wants to remain hidden, and most of the time, if the snake doesn’t think you will see it, it will just sit there and hope you go away. I’ve literally stepped right over them, and they’ll just sit there and hope I don’t notice.”

Clark added that he believes timber rattlers will become more shy and intolerant of human presence as human development of their habitat proceeds. Clark said, however, he doesn’t think timber rattlers will ever change the way they perceive humans – as a large, potentially dangerous mammal.

If the timber rattler continues its decline in Pennsylvania, the effects could be felt throughout the ecosystem, Clark said. A behavioral change or population increase in small mammals the timber rattler preys on, such as mice and squirrels, could alter the ecosystem in ways unclear to Clark.

“Ecosystems tend to be healthier and function better if they have the natural complement of predators and prey and herbivores that have evolved over time,” he said. “Most ecosystems are something of an equilibrium with respect to the major species that are active in that ecosystem. If you go in and start removing those unexpectedly, bad things can happen.”

This story was produced for The Allegheny Front to mark the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. 

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