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Coexisting with snakes isn't an easy task

Bob Frye
| Sunday, Aug. 30, 2009

Chris Currie's live-and-let-live policy was put to the test last summer.

He lives in Laurel Mountain Village, near the Laurel Summit east of Laughlintown, surrounded by Forbes State Forest at an elevation of more than 2,500 feet. That puts him squarely in timber rattlesnake country.

He'd seen snakes in his yard and driveway before — to the tune of one or two a summer for each of the past several years — but had never killed them. Instead, he always relocated them to other parts of the forest.

Then, little more than a year ago, a snake bit the family's dog, Zoe, a 13-year-old Siberian husky. She subsequently died.

"The dog had been with us a lot longer than the kids. She was the Charles Bronson of dogs. We never thought she'd die of natural causes," Currie said.

The loss was heartbreaking, he admitted. It was scary for another reason, too: Currie and his wife have 3-year-old twin sons who are increasingly interested in playing outside.

To protect them, the Curries have tried to snake-proof their yard. They removed all of the large rocks that might harbor snakes, applied a mothball-like chemical that is supposed to keep snakes away and quit feeding birds that could be attractive as prey.

But they haven't resorted to killing snakes.

"Coexisting with them is a perpetual thing," Currie said. "Killing one is not going to change things. It's not like you're going to send the rest of them a message, B-movie style.

"They're just doing what they do."

Unfortunately, attitudes toward Pennsylvania's rattlesnakes have not always been so enlightened.

Proof of that can be found in the handful of rattlesnake roundups still held across Pennsylvania, one of the few states that still allows them. They've changed over time — from places where snakes were brought to be killed in the days of bounties to more educational events today — but their crowds still exhibit a mixture of fascination and loathing.

Even the timber rattlesnake's Latin name — crotalus horridus horridus — speaks to its villainous reputation.

Rattlesnakes have suffered as a result.

A study being done by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has revealed that timber rattlesnakes are, in places at least, struggling to hang on.

Over the past several years, researchers visited 591 historical snake "basking" sites and 344 new ones. Nearly three out of every four — rocky, southwestern-facing slopes, generally at 1,662 feet elevation, where snakes congregate to soak up sun and digest food — exist on public land.

On average, they contained six rattlers each, though one had 63. The snakes have been fairly large — up to 54 inches — with the more typical snake stretching 40-41 inches.

Yet, thanks to development, roads and other things that bring snakes close to people, "66 percent of all the sites we examined were found to be of low quality or had had their snakes extirpated," said Chris Urban, chief of the natural diversity section for the commission.

Snakes are especially struggling in certain parts of the state, like the southwest region.

"As far as populations, the northcentral region looks pretty good. It might actually be one of the strongholds for timber rattlesnakes in the Northeast," Urban said.

"The periphery of their range is another story."

State foresters have been trying to help by improving snake habitat along the Laurel and Chestnut ridges by cutting trees around traditional basking sites to remove some of the sun-blocking canopy, said Ed Callahan, district forester for Forbes State Forest. The agency has a pamphlet it hands out to commercial loggers who may encounter snakes, and it's trying to educate the public about snakes, too, he said.

All of that seems to have snakes on a bit of a rebound locally, he said.

But there's work still to be done.

"If people aren't real familiar with the outdoors, they're always asking, do we have bears and snakes," Callahan said.

"I think most people are OK with them. They do make you pay attention for the rest of the day if you see one crossing the trail. But they are neat creatures."

Even Currie agrees. His personal loss hasn't convinced him to wage war on rattlesnakes.

"It just seems to make sense to try to coexist. That doesn't always work. I'm proof of that," he said. "But it hasn't changed my MO."

Commission ponders changing restrictions

The point of the Fish and Boat Commission's timber rattlesnake research has been to determine whether any changes in their legal status is warranted.

Right now, timber rattlesnakes are a "candidate" species, meaning that they can be harvested under certain restrictions. The next level of protection would come if they are labeled a "threatened" species, meaning one that could become endangered.

The fact that the snakes are abundant in some areas and scarcer in others may prompt the commission to try something new, though, Chris Urban said.

Rather than label snakes threatened or endangered statewide, biologists may recommend managing snakes on a management unit basis, as the Game Commission does with, say, bobcats.

Harvest of snakes — limited to one per person per year now — might be allowed to continue in some units but not others, Urban said.

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