At their most recent meeting, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) voted to change the timber rattlesnake’s designation. The agency’s research indicated that the rattlesnake population is stable and recovering, and is no longer experiencing a decline.
“The delisting of the timber rattlesnake,” Executive Director John Arway said, “demonstrates how protective measures and regulations can be successfully implemented to conserve a species and improve a population.”
After decades of persecution, overhunting and habitat loss, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission responded to what was perceived to be a declining rattlesnake population. In 1978, the Commission listed the timber rattlesnake as a “candidate species.” This means that protective measures were put in place and research began to determine if Pennsylvania’s timber rattlesnakes needed to be officially classified as threatened or endangered.
A 12-year statewide assessment was recently completed. During that period, Commission biologists and volunteers visited more than 1,700 sites, of which 71 percent were occupied by timber rattlesnakes.
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The timber rattlesnake is now found in 51 of 67 counties, with the population being particularly dense in the central part of the state.
“Current data indicates that the rattlesnake retains an extensive distribution across the Commonwealth,” Arway noted, “with large populations remaining in many areas, which justifies removing it from the candidate list.”
Many Pennsylvania residents, even those who spend a fair amount of time outdoors, might go their entire life without seeing a wild timber rattler. However, you might be surprised at the number that actually live in the Keystone State.
Just how many rattlesnakes are there in Pennsylvania?
According to the PFBC’s non-game and endangered species coordinator, Chris Urban, that is a difficult question to answer.
“Those of us who study them have made a few back-of-the-envelope estimates, but no one has a solid number,” Urban explained. “The statewide population is definitely in the hundreds of thousands. Considering that about 50 percent of their habitat is inaccessible for one reason or another, the number could be higher than a million.”
Urban pointed out that large areas of potential habitat are inaccessible because some landowners don’t grant access and some of the steep, rocky terrain where rattlesnakes live is just too dangerous for survey volunteers. Urban noted that their study was mainly done on public land.
Prior to the Commission’s July action, the Technical Committee of the Pennsylvania Biological Survey voted twice to recommend delisting. However, the decision is not without its detractors. According to the Commission, 97 percent of the letters received during the public comment period were opposed to the status change. However, no one supplied any additional data that would contradict the staff recommendation to delist timber rattlesnakes.
Letter writers expressed the following concerns: the lack of a monitoring plan, the fact that a large portion of the range has not been surveyed, and that the timber rattlesnake would not receive adequate protection after the status change. Other letter writers were worried about continued disturbance of their habitat by natural gas and pipeline industries.
Urban explained that his agency has no plans to remove rules already in place to protect rattlesnakes. The South Mountain area of the Michaux State Forest in Cumberland County is still off limits to any rattlesnake harvest. There are no plans to change the permitting, season and bag limits for timber rattlesnakes.
“The timber rattlesnake remains a ‘species of special concern,’” Urban said, “and that status affords it the same protection as ‘candidate.’”
The PFBC is working with Tom LaDuke, herpetologist and professor at East Stroudsburg University, to develop a long-term population monitoring program to track changes and further the understanding of the timber rattlesnake’s conservation status.
“This plan is in its first year of testing and tweaking,” Urban commented. “By 2018, a full plan should be in place.”
Habitat management at gestation sites began in 2012, and the agency has worked closely with the natural gas industry to avoid or mitigate damage to areas with high rattlesnake use.
“In general, the gas and pipeline industries have been very cooperative,” Urban added.
In the end, the commissioners trusted their staff’s recommendation and voted to delist the timber rattlesnake. The vote was taken on July 12, in Harrisburg.
“The decision by our board to remove the timber rattlesnake from the Candidate Species list should be viewed as a success story for the conservation and management of a once vulnerable species of rattlesnake,” Arway said. “However, we must continue our efforts and not let down our guard to insure that the timber rattlesnake continues to be secure across its entire range.”
Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com