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Wildlife Watch: Timber rattlesnake

Timber rattlesnake
Timber rattlesnake(Courtesy: VTF&W)
Published: Aug. 3, 2021 at 4:31 PM EDT
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FAIR HAVEN, Vt. (WCAX) - Only one county in Vermont is home to the state’s only venomous snake -- Rutland county. Our Ike Bendavid got an up-close look at the timber rattlesnake.

In western Rutland County, private landowners like Lisa Jacobson are used to living with wildlife, and that means the venomous timber rattlesnake.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: You seem to co-exist with them.

Lisa Jacobson: We do.

Jacobson says she has no issue with the snakes that can sometimes be seen basking in the sun in her backyard. “You really have no reason to be afraid of them, just remembering to keep your respect and healthy distance,” Jacobson said.

Timber rattlesnake
Timber rattlesnake(WCAX)

The timber rattler used to be found all over the state, but their population was decimated by bounty hunting. That ended in the ‘70s, and then in the ‘80s the species was listed as endangered, helping to protect the population from further decline

“People should care because this is one of our native species -- it’s an original Vermonter, it’s been here longer than any of us,” said Luke Groff, a herpetologist with Vermont Fish and Wildlife. Today, he says this snake with a deadly bite can only be seen in one area of the state. “We only have one venomous snake species and it’s restricted to a handful of towns in western Rutland County. I get lots of emails and calls saying we have seen rattlesnakes elsewhere in the state. It’s typically -- probably -- a misidentification.”

Groff says these snakes shouldn’t stop folks from their next hike. “If you are hiking in Stowe or down in Brattleboro, rattlesnakes shouldn’t even cross your mind. If you are hiking in western Rutland County, sure, you should be aware that you are hiking in rattlesnake territory, but I’m aware of only one rattlesnake bite in the last 50 years and that was because, from what I understand, was because that person was attempting to handle that snake,” Groff said.

And why are they found only in this specific area? “Western Rutland County is a less populated part of Vermont and it’s got some rugged terrain that gave them some refuge,” said Murray McHugh with The Nature Conservancy. Rugged terrain is usually where you will find the snakes, along with places like rock or woodpiles.

McHugh says The Nature Conservancy has teamed up with the state to protect over a thousand acres of critical snake habitat. “The good thing about protecting the land for the snakes is that they are not the only important critter and or natural system that’s here. So, there is a slew of rare plants and rare ecosystems that also exist on this natural area,” he said.

But this reptile is still a bit of a mystery, especially when it comes to how well the population has recovered since it was listed by the state. “To give you an accurate estimate -- I couldn’t do that, just because we don’t know. We are trying to figure that out and that sort of data is hard to come by,” Groff said.

He says he rarely handles snakes, but today is one of those days -- it’s for science. We stumble upon another young rattlesnake that is away from sensitive areas like dens or birthing sites, and this one hasn’t been tagged to monitor. “We feel comfortable trying to get this snake to PIT tag because putting these PIT tags, these microchips within the snakes, is how we monitor individuals, which will allow us to get population estimates. So, in theory, we capture this young snake, we put a PIT tag in it. This snake may live to be 40 years old and, in theory, this may be the only time we ever have to handle this snake,” Groff said.

Timber rattlesnake capture
Timber rattlesnake capture(WCAX)

As he gears up, Groff says that handling this snake this one time can result in a lifetime of data. “I’m just prepping some supplies to put a PIT tag into the snake. A PIT tag -- it’s just like what you put in your pets at home,” he explained.

As these professionals work to get the snake safely in the bucket, you can hear the rattle. Groff says this is an abnormal encounter, as the snake shows how quickly it can strike. But with some patience, the snake gets into the tube for observation and tagging. “This snake will hopefully pick it up when it enters its den this winter using our passive monitoring system. And after a number of years and a number of snakes, we can start estimating survival and populations. So, then we will have a good idea if numbers are increasing, decreasing, or staying stable,” Groff said.

Tagging timber rattlesnake with a PIT chip
Tagging timber rattlesnake with a PIT chip(WCAX)

After they get done, this healthy male is released back into the wild.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: What’s your advice if someone sees one?

Luke Groff: My advice if someone sees a rattlesnake is first -- be thankful. You are one of the few people who get to see a Vermont rattlesnake. Very few people get to see them, so count your lucky stars. The second thing is, take note of where it is. Take note of your surroundings and gracefully and slowly back away and leave that snake alone. Like I said, rattlesnake bites typically happen when people get close and try to get a photograph or try to do some handling, that’s when the bites happen.

A rare creature that will let you know if you get too close.

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