WESTPORT — Although sightings don’t appear to be on the rise, seeing a North Country rattlesnake can be a shock, as its species name “Crotalus horridus” implies, and those who live or hike in timber-rattler habitat should be aware of snake dangers.
According to Erin M. Hanczyk, DEC public outreach officer for Region 5, timber rattlesnakes have a restricted range in New York. In the Adirondacks, this species is found exclusively in areas around the Lake George Basin and in some areas of the Lake Champlain Basin, usually in rocky areas near the water. DEC is not aware of an increase in sightings this year.
If you live in an area where timber rattlesnakes thrive, familiarize yourself with rattlesnake ecology and behavior. Never approach a timber rattlesnake and contact DEC’s Bureau of Wildlife, 518-897-1291, if you have questions or need assistance. For assistance outside of normal business hours, the public can call DEC Dispatch at (518) 897-1300.
In addition to DEC staff with the requisite training, individuals that handle timber rattlesnakes must be licensed by DEC. In general, timber rattlesnakes are relocated within or adjacent to their home range and at a distance that will minimize interactions with humans.
According to the NYS DEC website, adult timber rattlers, which are the largest venomous snakes in New York, generally measure 3 to 4.5 feet. Despite their size, cryptic coloration allows them to be easily concealed. Two color patterns are commonly found: a yellow phase, which has black or dark brown cross-bands on a lighter background color of yellow, brown or gray, and a black phase, which has dark cross-bands on a dark background. Some individuals appear all black.
Like other pit-vipers, the timber rattler has a broadly triangular head with many small scales on its crown. Perhaps the most distinctive feature is the rattle made of loosely attached horny segments. When vibrated, usually from a coiled position, the rattle makes its characteristic buzzing sound.
Timber rattlesnakes are active from late April until mid-October, although in northern New York they may not emerge until mid-May when they are usually lethargic. Females give birth to 4-14 young every three to five years. The young are approximately 1 foot in length at birth and emerge singly from the female.
During winter, dozens of timber rattlers may congregate together in a den to hibernate below the frost line. Dens are generally on open, steep, south facing slopes with rock fissures or talus surrounded by hardwood forests.
Rattlers feed primarily on small mammals, but occasionally take birds, amphibians and other snakes. The venom, which is used primarily to immobilize prey, can be fatal to humans if the bite is untreated. However, in New York there have been no records of human deaths attributable to rattlesnakes in the wild during the last several decades. Contrary to popular opinion, a rattlesnake will not pursue or attack a person unless threatened or provoked.
Although still fairly common in some local areas, the timber rattlesnake population has been greatly reduced in most areas where it was once numerous due to unregulated collections and indiscriminate killing. Bounties on rattlesnakes in New York were outlawed in 1971. Even in areas without bounties, rattlesnakes were sometimes collected or harmed. New York’s rattlesnakes are listed as a threatened species and are protected by law. Killing a rattlesnake can result in a fine up to $1,000.
Protection of habitat is now a primary concern. Collecting rattlers from the wild is now prohibited, but poachers are still active in supplying the black market pet trade.
DEC Forest Rangers and Environmental Conservation Police Officers do not carry snake bite kits. Both Rangers and ECOs receive training on the habits and handling of rattlesnakes, specifically in the Lake George area. DEC officers have assisted with the removal of rattlesnakes from campsites on Lake George islands in the past.
As for the supervisors in the towns in which rattlesnakes are sometimes seen, those polled said they have not experienced any recent problems. “I have not heard of any sightings,” said Willsboro Town Supervisor Shaun Gillilland.
Essex Town Supervisor Ronald Jackson and Westport Town Supervisor Ike Tyler agreed.
“We do not have a specific person who handles these situations. With that said, I have not heard of any problems with rattlesnakes in the hamlet. The history has always been more out on the Lake Shore Road closer to Essex,” Tyler said.
IF YOU ARE BITTEN
Get at least 20 feet away from the snake. Stay calm. The faster your heart beats, the faster the poison moves through your body. Keep the bitten part of your body lower than your heart at all times. Remove any restrictive clothing or jewelry from the area of the bite. It is going to swell up. Let it bleed for at least a minute. This will wash out some of the poison. Get to a hospital. Do not ask someone to suck the poison out or apply a tourniquet.
As for treatment, Dr. David W. Clauss, director of the Elizabethtown Community Hospital Emergency Department, said his staff is prepared. “We do have rattlesnake anti-venom (CroFab, or Crotalidae Polyvalent Immune Fab) available on site at the Elizabethtown and Ticonderoga emergency departments.”
“It is my understanding that ECH has never had the need to provide care for a rattlesnake bite, and has never administered the anti-venom. In the event that a venomous snakebite did occur, we would follow a rather standardized approach in collaboration with our regional poison control center.
“This involves standard assessment and stabilization of the patient, local wound care, assessment of clinical factors in combination with certain blood test results to determine the need for anti-venom, and then administration of anti-venom as indicated. In addition, we would work with our partners in the UVM Health Network to secure an appropriate care setting for those patients who require a higher level of care,” Clauss said.
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