Twenty-five years ago, as a young Fish and Wildlife Technician with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, I was recruited for an unusual field outing on State parkland in the Hudson Highlands of southeastern New York: a first of its kind, hands-on training to become a certified nuisance rattlesnake responder.
As a responder, I would be on a short list of people willing to safely and legally relocate timber rattlesnakes that had wandered into compromising situations on private property – a win-win for both the homeowner and snake. No such system was in place in the Hudson Valley and, without it, many homeowners took matters into their own hands, often with a shovel or shotgun.
Randy Stechert, a long-time herpetologist and regional rattlesnake expert who has worked through New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and elsewhere, led our small group to a remote rocky clearing in search of Crotalus horridus, the timber rattlesnake. The largest of New York State’s three venomous snake species (the others being the northern copperhead and massasauga rattlesnake), the timber rattlesnake was in trouble, owing to centuries of habitat loss and direct persecution, including a bounty system lasting into the 1970s.
These depredations were so effective the State declared the species Threatened in 1983, a designation requiring conservation measures to keep it from slipping to Endangered status or worse. Currently under New York State Environmental Conservation Law, it is illegal to capture, kill or possess any native snake at any time without a permit, including rattlesnakes.
The mission of that long-ago outing was to familiarize our ragtag group of would-be responders with this species in the flesh. Randy would show us a wild rattlesnake and how to safely handle it, while imparting his wisdom about all things rattlesnake in his booming baritone voice.
And boy did he deliver.
I will never forget the robust, nearly all-black rattlesnake plucked from a huckleberry patch and deposited on the open bedrock just feet in front of me. Most memorable was how easily we could stand beside this now agitated wild animal with little concern about its intentions. It was in a clearly defensive posture, coiled and ready to repel any further attacks from this presumably malevolent band of primates.
In the ensuing decades, and after handling dozens of rattlesnakes in my research and as a nuisance responder, I’ve come to understand them as pacifists at heart. Despite their considerable weaponry – two hypodermic needle-like fangs and potent venom – they really just want to be left alone. In fact, their first response to human presence is to remain motionless, and hope their camouflage shields them from detection. If detected and a retreat is available, such as a rock crevice, they will typically make a rapid exit to safety. But if they feel exposed, vulnerable, and without a means for escape, they quickly switch gears in an attempt to intimidate their aggressor. A cornered rattlesnake coils, inflates to look more girthy, and rapidly vibrates its namesake rattle to audibly back up the message. This menacing version is our popular notion of a rattlesnake but, ironically, is merely a response to the perceived threat posed by us.
Since that indelible first encounter with a wild rattlesnake on State Park land, I have become increasingly entwined with this charismatic species. I’ve rescued them from homeowner’s yards, conducted field surveys for their winter dens, and ultimately took a very deep dive into unraveling the timber rattlesnake’s mating system and reproductive ecology as a graduate student.
Still managed by the DEC, the nuisance rattlesnake response program includes most members of that original group recruited in the mid-1990s. While Randy Stechert continues to host trainings (now done with captive snakes, rather than wild ) in recent years, he has passed the torch to another generation of trainers, including myself here at State Parks.
Where I work at Trailside Museums and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park , natural resource staff, backcountry rangers and our own zookeepers have been trained using our captive rattlesnakes under this program, expanding Parks’ in-house capacity to respond to nuisance situations at all our locations.
Other conservation measures have been installed as well in recent years. For example, all park development projects are “screened” by location to assess their potential for rattlesnake impacts. When possible, projects sited within snake habitat are scheduled for November to March, when the snakes are less likely to be active and in harm’s way. When this can’t be done, the contractor is required to develop a rattlesnake response plan and have an onsite snake monitor to head off conflicts. In some cases, when habitat loss or direct impacts are considered unacceptable, the project is relocated, reconfigured, or even denied.
The timber rattlesnake has been a survivor, persisting in the rocky uplands of the Hudson Valley, Southern Tier and eastern Adirondacks for at least the last six thousand years. Our past concerted efforts to eliminate it from the landscape were unsuccessful, and good thing. As more species disappear and the fabric of nature unravels, thread by thread, the value of having formidable, wild creatures about us only increases.
State parklands are a critical refuge for this imperiled snake in New York and can remain this way with a little foresight, planning, and, frankly, empathy, on our part. If we can successfully accommodate the long-term survival of the timber rattlesnake, it will bode well for biodiversity overall.
What To Do If You See a Rattlesnake?
If you are on State parkland or elsewhere in the wild, observe the snake from a safe distance (at least six feet), and take a moment to enjoy this majestic animal. If you snap a picture with your cell phone and want to share it with others over social media, it is best to do this without disclosing exact location information. You can either share a screenshot or make sure location services are disabled on your phone. This will keep the location secret from snake poachers attempting to mine online location data. After briefly observing the snake, back away and make a detour around its location to continue your hike.
In a nuisance situation where the snake’s presence is problematic, such as in or near a dwelling or public space, a certified relocation expert can be obtained by calling 911 or the DEC. Please remember: Do not attempt to disturb or capture the snake yourself. Seeking expert assistance in this instance is one way to help New York preserve its biodiversity.
Cover shot – A yellow morph timber rattlesnake blends into the forest floor. All pictures NYS Parks unless otherwise credited.
Post by Ed McGowan, PhD, Director of Science and Trailside Museums & Zoo, Bear Mountain State Park
Read a recent scientific study on how rattlesnakes use their rattles to make a snake sound closer than it actually is.
Read about a DEC and multi-agency investigation between 2006 and 2009 into the illegal wildlife trade in rattlesnakes, other reptiles and amphibians.
Learn more about the timber rattlesnake in this previous post in the NYS Parks Blog…
Threatened in New York State and often misunderstood, the Timber Rattlesnake is an impressive and unique species that is essential for healthy ecosystems. At an average of 3-4 feet in length and described as “stocky,” timber rattlesnakes are the largest venomous snake species in New York. They are easily identified by their broad triangular-shaped head … Continue reading Respect for Rattlers