Woods and Waters: Timber rattlesnake killings unwarranted

There were several timber rattlesnakes like this one that were killed last June in Sproul State Forest. All of them were pregnant females, which means there were about 70 to 100 snakes total killed.
There were several timber rattlesnakes like this one that were killed last June in Sproul State Forest. All of them were pregnant females, which means there were about 70 to 100 snakes total killed. Photo for the CDT

Blood splotches stained the top of a large rock. Many smaller stones — the weapons of mass destruction — also littered the flat-topped boulder. It was a sight disturbing to anyone who cares about wildlife and wild places.

A serious wildlife crime occurred in Centre County nearly a year ago — the blood and stones, evidence to the crime. A person or people killed seven or more timber rattlesnakes in the Sproul State Forest north of Snow Shoe. Since each of those rattlesnakes was a helpless, gravid (pregnant) female, that person likely killed 70 to 100 snakes on that sad June day.

Some of you might be saying or thinking, “Bravo to the snake killers,” but the rattlesnakes were off a gated state forest road and not near any populated area. The senseless thrill killing of those snakes was quite unnecessary and totally illegal. Rattlesnakes, like other native species, have a role in our forest ecology.

The timber rattlesnake occurs in 51 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. It is listed as a “candidate species” — its population is being studied for possible listing as a state endangered or threatened species. One must have a fishing license and a special permit to hunt for rattlesnakes. The limit is one snake per person, per year.

According to Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) non-game and endangered species coordinator Chris Urban, about 900 people apply for a venomous snake permit each year. Of that 900, over 80 percent do not kill a snake. They only observe snakes or practice catch and release. Most rattlesnake hunters care deeply about the resource.

I learned about the Sproul State Forest incident shortly after it happened. Gerald Barton, northcentral law enforcement supervisor for the Fish and Boat Commission, asked that I not report it because, at the time, it was an ongoing investigation. I complied.

“We investigated the incident and every lead was followed to no avail,” Barton shared in a phone interview several days ago. “This crime would fall under recent ‘serious unlawful taking’ legislation that was passed by the Pennsylvania legislature early last year. Persons found guilty of taking three or more times the daily limit would be charged with a second degree misdemeanor and subject to a $500-$5,000 fine and up to two years imprisonment.”

Contrary to popular myths, timber rattlesnakes are quite docile — not aggressive. They avoid humans, if given the chance. Snakes, particularly venomous snakes, are often the target of unnecessary persecution. Every rattlesnake that I have ever seen in the wild — several dozen — wanted nothing to do with me and crawled away.

Urban called them one of our “most mellow” snakes.

“They perform an ecological service — out there to hunt mice and chipmunks, not people,” he said.

“Rattlesnakes don’t chase you down and attack you. There is no excuse for killing a snake that isn’t threatening you,” Barton emphasized. “Someone who kills a snake out of animosity or just for thrills is disturbing to me.”

Timber rattlesnakes mate in July, August or September, with the female giving birth the following August or September.

Beginning in late May, gravid females gather at what are known as gestation rocks. According to Urban, the snakes prefer big flat slabs, often situated on top of other rocks. These sites must receive six to eight hours of solar exposure per day, with the top rock gaining and holding heat.

There may be as many as 25 snakes — all females — at one rock. Urban noted that a typical number in Pennsylvania would be three to a dozen snakes at one site, with six being about average. According to Urban, the snakes at the basking rock are often related — showing a matriarchal organization.

“We are still learning about rattlesnakes, but this relationship hints at some type of social structure,” Urban stated. “The gravid females bask on the rocks to help their immune system and to increase their metabolic rate. This moves along embryo development.”

While at a gestation rock, the snakes do not hunt or eat. Sometime in August or September, the females move 10 to 15 yards away from the rock and give birth to 5 to 17 young.

Although this might seem like a high number, rattlesnakes actually have a very low reproductive rate. Females are not sexually mature until their fourth or fifth year, and they only give birth, on average, once every three years during their adult life. Therefore, a 7-year-old snake would likely have only given birth once. In addition, young rattlesnakes have a very low survival rate. Comparatively, a robin of that age would have raised more than 60 offspring. A bullfrog would have laid thousands of eggs.

“A kill such as the one occurring last year in Centre County would put a significant dent in a local population,” commented Urban. “If the population were already small, it might never recover.”

The Keystone State is blessed with many wild areas, most of which are protected as state forest, state game or national forest lands. Bald eagles, black bears, native brook trout and timber rattlesnakes are an important part of that “wildness.”

PFBC officers do not normally remove problem snakes. That is left up to private wildlife contractors. Due to the timber rattlesnake’s candidate status, however, Barton stated that commission officers will come to remove a rattlesnake, rather than having it killed by the landowner.

Anyone having a lead as to who might have illegally killed the rattlesnakes in the Sproul State Forest last June should contact the PFBC Northcentral Regional Office in Bellefonte at 359-5250.

“Rattlesnakes are the last true wild thing that we have in Pennsylvania,” Barton noted. “In the northcentral region, they represent the last remnant of what this state once was.”

Urban added, “They are part of our natural heritage, and I’d like to see people appreciate them for what they are.”