ROMNEY, W.Va. — The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources wants to hear about your encounters with rattlesnakes. Such a request might seem odd, but you have to consider anybody who has ever seen a rattlesnake rarely forgets the encounter. That observation and story could contribute valuable information to wildlife managers as they attempt to get a better picture of rattlesnake numbers in West Virginia.
West Virginia is home to the timber rattler, which in recent years has started to see a decline in other parts of the country.
“We aren’t 100 percent sure how rattlesnakes are doing,” said Division of Natural Resources Biologist Kevin Oxenrider. “That’s what this is trying to do. We know that rattlesnakes throughout their range in North America have been declining, particularly in states north of West Virginia.”
But West Virginia is prime country for the timber rattler. Oxenrider indicated the heavily forested parts of West Virginia are exactly the kind of habitat the snakes seek.
“We have a real unique opportunity to have good rattlesnake populations,” he explained. “But to do that we really need to know where we should be concentrating our conservation efforts.”
The attitude toward the rattlesnake isn’t a good one. Fear of the creatures is often irrational. The first step to include the public in the survey process is education.
“Rattlesnakes have been declining in other places and even in West Virginia, because of habitat loss through development, but also through direct persecution,” Oxenrider explained. “People misunderstand and when they see one they just immediately kill it.”
However, the “dead snake is a good snake” mindset isn’t good. The attitude could create far more problems than it will solve. Rattlesnakes prey mostly on small mammals like mice and chipmunks. Not surprisingly, those are the populations which are the greatest threat to the spread of ailments like Lyme disease.
“Studies have started to suggest the snakes help control the tick population,” Oxenrider explained. “Lyme disease relies on chipmunks and mice as a host. When rattlesnakes eat those chipmunks and mice, they also eat the ticks. They do a tremendous job at keeping down the number of ticks.”
Rattlesnakes are commonly observed in isolated, rocky cover or along or underneath fallen logs in the forest. Those are their desired haunts because it’s where the mice and chipmunks are typically running to escape the watchful eyes of other predators from the air. Therefore, when walking in West Virginia, Oxenrider cautioned, you need to make very sure of what’s on any log or the other side of any log before you step over it in the woods.
During the coming months, as snakes become more active, Oxenrider hopes the public will report their encounters of rattlesnakes, dead or alive, to this link.
“There are some fields to fill out asking about the encounter you had and we’re asking if people can upload a photo if they have one,” said Oxenrider. “It helps us in tracking snake fungal disease, there may be some symptoms the snake in the photo is displaying. Plus we have two color-morphs of rattlesnake in the state, a black color morph and a yellow color morph. The photo can help us classify those in the state as well.”