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IL Press: Rattlesnakes not the danger they are perceived

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Posted by W von Papinešu on May 05, 2003 at 21:29:41:

HARRISBURG DAILY REGISTER (Illinois) 03 May 03 Rattlesnakes not the danger they are perceived (Brian DeNeal)
Marion: Scott Ballard finds it interesting that kids love to pick up snakes and stick them in their pockets.
He also knows many adults squirm at the sight of a snake and a lot will kill them on site. It is this mindset, he says, that caused the timber rattlsnake to be listed as a threatened species in Illinois in 1994. A recent survey found the snake in 21 of the historic 36 counties which is a reduction of 42 percent.
"Young kids aren't afraid of snakes. They'll go up and pick up snakes," Ballard said.
"Then they're taught that snakes are bad. What they need to do is know it's not OK to go pick up every snake you see, but that snakes are very beneficial."
As Illinois Department of Natural Resources, District Natural Heritage Biologist, Ballard is usually the man to call when people find snakes in their yards and want them removed.
In the case of the timber rattler, Ballard has to be careful about what he does with the snake, but is not really afraid of getting bitten.
The fear of being bitten and killed by a venomous snake is the reason so many people kill the timber rattlers.
In fact the snakes are shy and usually don't even rattle when someone gets near. The snake wants to get away from people and will normally bite only if cornered or harassed.
"Usually, the only way to get bitten by a snake is to step on it or try to pick it up. If you give it a chance, they'll always try to get out of your way," Ballard said.
Timber rattlers often won't rattle unless harassed. They don't want to draw the attention of a predator, Ballard said.
He said if a timber rattler bites, only about one-third of the time does it inject venom. Rattlers have only so much venom and they conserve it to use in catching prey. The snake will bite a mouse or rat and wait for the venom to kill the rodent before it eats.
"Sure, it's painful to be bitten by a venomous snake, but you may not have any venom injected," Ballard said.
The best protection against an injection is to wear leather boots that cover above the ankle. A snake, if stepped on, will strike the foot or ankle and a good pair of boots should protect the skin from fangs. The snake shouldn't strike high on the leg as is sometimes depicted in Hollywood movies, Ballard said.
Even if a person does get bitten and poison is injected, anyone in decent health should survive, Ballard said.
He said the best thing to do if bitten is to get straight to a hospital rather than attempt any first aid in the field.
"If you can get to a hospital within five or six hours after the bite, that's fine," Ballard said.
People often think of using a tourniquet after a bite, but a tourniquet can do more harm than good if applied improperly and even properly used can cause the bite to be worse.
"Some people have actually lost limbs because the tourniquet is too tight," Ballard said.
The tourniquet also confines the venom to one particular area where concentrated it can do worse damage. As the venom flows through the body, it dilutes become less toxic the farther it travels.
He said people who are allergic to bee stings may be more susceptible to snake venom. Bee stings are responsible for more deaths each year than venomous snake bites.
"How many people get stung by bees? More people have died from bee stings that snake bites," Ballard said.
Ballard said though the timber rattler poses considerably less of a threat to people than many believe, human impact on a single female snake or den can be disastrous to an entire snake population.
A female cannot bear young until she reaches 8 or 9 years old and then only has a litter every two to three years, meaning reproduction of the species is very slow compared to other snakes.
Rattlesnakes return to the same den every winter and do not normally travel more than 2 miles away from that den their entire lives. The snakes use chemical trails to find their den, and if that den is destroyed or significantly altered to a point the snakes cannot hibernate there, an entire den will likely be destroyed.
Also, if a housing development goes up near a rattlesnake den, there is an increased likelihood a snake will at some point enter a yard and then be killed by humans. An entire population can be wiped out being killed in yards.
When people call Ballard with a timber rattlesnake in the yard, he explains to them the snake is simply passing through.
"I ask them if they're comfortable if it just passes through their yard. Most of the time it's just trailing mice or rats and moves on," Ballard said.
If a person is not comfortable, Ballard will go to the area and move the snake away, if it is still in the yard. He is careful to try to get the snake into the vicinity of its den so that it does not lose the chemical trail.
"I try to at least get it into the woods where it is supposed to be. They are really difficult to successfully transplant," Ballard said.
The timber rattlesnake's typical environment is upland wooded habitat with heavily timbered areas and rocky bluffs with crevices in sunny outcroppings.
Usually people get a little more sympathetic to the snake when Ballard explains the benefit of having a timber rattler in an area.
The snake each year eats an average of 9 pounds of mice and rats.
"Basically when you kill a snake, it's like releasing a pillow case full of mice in your yard," Ballard said.
Ballard recently has been working with the U.S. Forest Service investigating a timber rattlesnake killed within the LaRue Road reptile closure area in the LaRue Pine Hills Research Natural Area. The road is closed seasonally during the spring when snakes migrate.
The snake was found in an obvious spot. Forest Service workers believe the person who killed the snake intended for it to be found. Such a blatant disregard for the law and for the road closure has angered and disturbed Wildlife Biologist Steve Widowski.
"They had cut off the head and threw it in the grass. We just want to get the message out that is illegal to do in the forest," Widowski said.
The portion of the road at the base of a bluff is closed to protect habitat of various reptiles and amphibians, including the timber rattlesnake.
Besides being on the list of Illinois threatened species, the timber rattlesnake is listed as a Regional Forester's Sensitive Species.
People who kill or collect a timber rattlesnake may face a $100 fine from the U.S. Forest Service and more than a $1,000 fine from IDNR.
The other two venomous snakes in Southeastern Illinois are the copperhead and cottonmouth, or water moccasin. Ballard said those two snakes are also not aggressive despite popular beliefs.
Copperheads are the most likely of the three to strike. Ballard said about 90 percent of all human snakebites in this area come from copperheads. But copperheads are also the weakest of the three.
The fangs are very short and are unlikely to penetrate denim jeans, Ballard said. Copperhead venom is also the weakest of the three pit vipers.
Water moccasins can be intimidating because of their curious nature. Ballard said a person in the water creates the same type of vibration as an injured fish, the normal food source of the snake. The snake may come close to someone in the water to see if it can get a meal, see a person and leave. The snake might also crawl into a boat believing it to be a floating log. Ballard said even if the snake gets into a boat, it is not usually being aggressive and can be returned to the water using a paddle if the person keeps calm.

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