Poachers decimate rattlesnake numbers
Snakes in danger
By JIM HOOK
Public Opinion/Christopher Shatzer
Odd bedfellows: A pair of young rattlesnakes coil next to a copperhead in Michaux State Forest. Rattlesnake numbers are declining in south-central Pennsylvania.
Public Opinion/Christopher Shatzer
Snake hunter: Philip Varndell, a forester for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, looks for rattlesnakes hiding among rocks in Michaux State Forest.
Philip Varndell paused after a steady climb on the trail -- partly to catch his breath, but mostly to warn the reporter and photographer following him on a trek to a rattlesnake den.
"Watch where you step," he whispered. "They could be anywhere -- between the rocks, in the leaves."
Varndell, a forester in Michaux State Forest, followed a well-worn path toward a sunbathed rock outcropping and stopped.
"Quick," he motioned.
In the dark shade beside a sunlit rock was a black female timber rattler. Maybe 3 feet long. She started to slither under the rock.
Human eyes, intent on scanning the 40-foot drop to the forest floor and inexperienced for snake hunting, adjusted slowly to the darkness of the shallow crevice. A black tail stacked with light gray buttons disappeared.
"What did I say? Twelve rattles?" Varndell asked.
That would make the female about six years old, possibly old enough to have her first brood.
Varndell said he is trying to train snakes he encounters in the wild to hide when they sense human footfalls. Poachers in search of skins and rattles have decimated populations.
A full grown rattlesnake can fetch $100, $200 or more on the black market, he said. It's illegal to sell a rattlesnake in Pennsylvania, punishable by a $200 fine.
Varndell climbed out to a rocking boulder. Twelve feet below the rock, but within sight, second female immediately began to rattle and slowly crawled under a shiny flat rock.
"That's a perfect maternal rock," he said.
Varndell pointed to a rock crevice that had been dug away, probably by someone trying to get to the underground buzz of the rattlesnake, he said. He noted other evidence: a white mark on a log pushed off the dirt road leading to the trail.
"Somebody's been in here since June with a vehicle," he said.
Varndell recalled finding seven large snakes at the den when he first visited it years ago.
He's been finding fewer and fewer. Earlier this year he saw two large pregnant females, ideal targets for poachers, and several babies -- some curled up with copperheads.
The timber rattlesnake and copperhead are the only two poisonous snakes found in south-central Pennsylvania. They often den together.
The snakes return to their ancestral homes in September. The dens offer protection for newborn snakes and, come winter, a warm crevice or cave below the frost line for the cold-blooded reptiles.
Michaux State Forest has about 20 snake dens and 20 smaller dens, Varndell said.
It's nothing more than a guess, he said. Nobody really knows.
The state has an estimated 600 historic snake dens.
Thirty volunteers are to visit the sites as part of a $30,000 Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission study.
They are verifying the sites, tagging a few snakes and taking a few blood samples. None has been bitten during 50-plus visits this season.
Their efforts are part of a study to count timber rattlesnake sites across the state. The study eventually will allow researchers to estimate the number of Pennsylvania timber rattlers.
Pennsylvania's timber rattler is in limbo. The Fish Commission allows a rattlesnake hunting season (June 14 to July 32, bag limit of one), but the species is a candidate for the endangered species list. They are protected in neighboring states.
"We're trying to manage a species we're not so sure about," said Chris Urban, leader of the snake site project for the Fish Commission. "The whole goal is to get a population estimate in the state. Out of that, we can start making some management decisions and ... management areas."
He is "greatly concerned" about rattlesnakes in the South Mountain area of Franklin and Adams counties, Urban said. The snakes appear to be a genetically isolated population according to preliminary results compiled by College of New Jersey researcher Howard Reinert. Busy highways and a wide valley separate the population from another on the North Mountain.
The fish commission's database of dens will be checked when construction of homes and buildings is planned, Urban said. The information will not be available to the public.
Poachers, loggers and roads are the greatest threats to rattlesnakes, according to Varndell. Male rattlesnakes are most active during summer breeding when they cross roads, causing people to speculate incorrectly that the snakes are coming down from the mountain to get water.
As a way to protect the snakes from loggers, Varndell is handling out brochures to employees of logging companies contracted to remove timber from the state forest. The brochure describes timber rattlesnakes and what to do about them. Loggers often have carried pistols loaded with bird shot as a snake gun, he said.
It's better to move a timber rattlesnake just 110 yards, than move it to another den, according to the experts. Snakes moved great distances have a 50-50 chance of survival.
"They'll keep searching and never find the (original) den," Varndell said.
Snakes moved from the objectionable spot are unlikely to return, he said. They are creatures of habit and stick to the same safe routine. Males typically range two miles from a den, sometimes up to six miles, Urban said.
"You say 'rattlesnake' and people just cringe," Varndell said. "They're just want to hang out, suck up the sun, eat mice and have babies. They've been persecuted for so long."
"They're a misunderstood critter," Urban said. "They re very docile creatures. If you leave them alone, they'll leave you alone."
Once people learn about them they become less fearful and more fascinated, he said.
Jim Hook can be reached at 262-4759, or firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published Tuesday, September 30, 2003