By Craig Moorhead
The Caledonia Argus
The blufflands of southeastern Minnesota are prime habitat for native timber rattlesnakes, so it’s not surprising that authorities sometimes receive calls from folks who have spotted those animals.
Conservation officer Tyler Ramaker (La Crescent) has fielded his share of calls for help with snakes. “A typical call is where someone has or thinks they have seen a rattlesnake in their garden or below the steps,” he told the Argus. “Often it’s not a rattlesnake. Sometimes it’s a gopher snake, or a fox snake, just another species that looks like a rattlesnake... We expect to see them, and it’s not venomous, so it’s not a threat to you.
“But some of the time, we show up and say, ‘Yep, that’s a rattlesnake.’”
A rattlesnake sunning next to a brush pile in the back 40 may not present a problem,“But if they are under the steps of your front entry, we’re going to get them out of there,” Ramaker noted.
He also said that local questions about Crotalus horridus, (aka the timber rattlesnake) should go to a person like Barb Perry, a MNDNR nongame wildlife technician who is familiar with the animals.
“Barb is the one that taught me how to handle rattlesnakes,” Ramaker reported. ”She is definitely the expert. She has trained every field (officer) that responds to these things, as well as other volunteers. She has the knowledge and experience and she has shared that with us.”
Perry said that there are several things that people should do if they see a timber rattler near their home. Those include removing one’s self and others (including pets and other domestic animals) from the immediate area. Timber rattlers are typically shy and retiring animals unless they are threatened, so be careful to do nothing to provoke the snake.
“If you want to have the snake relocated, call your local law enforcement office and they have a list of people willing to remove/relocate rattlesnakes,” she reported. “The goal is to remove the snake from harm’s way, but not to relocate it to an area unknown to it. Snakes relocated to new territory have a less than 50% chance of survival. They need to find an appropriate site for overwintering; otherwise they will not survive the winter.
The MNDNR is not relocating any of the animals to areas that do not have an existing rattlesnake population, Perry added.
“If the snake is killed, call the DNR,” she said. “It is important to the DNR to get all the information about the snake, and they may be able to use the skin for demonstrations. It also helps them to know where rattlesnake encounters are occurring so that they can attempt to address the situation...
“One message I would like to get across to people is that they should always be aware of their surroundings,” Perry stated. “We are being taught that now in this COVID environment, to think about our safety and take precautions. As someone who works in the field, I am always alert and watching for ground hornets, paper wasps, bumble bees (been stung a few times over the years!); deer and other wildlife along roadways; poison ivy, wild parsnip, poison hemlock; tripping hazards or overhead hazards, and yes, timber rattlesnakes.
“There are many hazards in our environment, but we can learn to recognize them and plan accordingly. A timber rattlesnake is a natural part of our landscape in the bluff country of southeast Minnesota, and should be treated with respect. They are a docile snake, but respond negatively to being harassed or threatened, as their life depends on protecting themselves from harm. Because people have moved into their habitat, there is the possibility for more encounters with them. But we can “live” with timber rattlesnakes by being aware of their possible presence and looking for them when in their habitat, and then giving them space or encouraging them to move along. For those people who have homes in the bluff country, they should always look for them when being outside on their property, just as they should also look for other dangers mentioned above.”
One thing that is worth noting is that there have been no human deaths caused by the bite of a timber rattlesnake in Minnesota since the early 1900’s. But if a bite does occur, the MNDNR cites several things to do.
“Get help as soon as possible. You have time, but the sooner treatment is rendered for a rattlesnake bite, the less tissue damage may occur. Even if you are not bitten, a scratch from a fang could still cause problems because of the venom in the fangs. A nick from a fang is less likely to have a severe impact, but treatment should still be sought. Stay calm. This will keep the venom from spreading quickly. Remove yourself from danger and if you have someone with you, let that person go for help while you wait for help to arrive. If possible, draw a circle around the bite area. This will help the doctors see how much swelling has occurred since the bite, and will help them to determine if venom was injected or if it was a dry bite (no venom was injected). Write the time of the bite next to the circle, so the doctor can see how rapidly the bite area is swelling.
“Most pets and livestock will survive a snakebite. You should get medical attention for them as soon as possible. Usually anti-venom is not required for treatment. Treatment may consist of antihistamines, antibiotics and fluids. The biggest concern with a rattlesnake bite to an animal is the location. If the animal is bit in the face, the swelling could close off nasal passages and affect the animal’s ability to breathe, which is more lethal than the venom.
Also, timber rattlesnakes take a couple of days to build up venom after a strike, leaving them vulnerable, so “they need to keep their venom supply to use on their prey,