ROMNEY, W.Va. — When it comes to an animal folks get excited about encountering, the timber rattlesnake probably doesn’t rank very high for most West Virginians. For some, just reading that sentence caused a sudden onset of what southern comedian Lewis Grizzard used to call “the shivering fits.” Society takes a dim view of snakes for a variety of reasons. But the reality is the timber rattlesnake has a role in our ecosystem and that role is being impacted as their numbers appear to be diminishing.
Kevin Oxenrider, biologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, indicated the dropping numbers of timber rattlesnakes is a national trend, but because of habitat it turns out West Virginia may be one of the nation’s best strong holds. To determine if that is the case, a study continues for a second year to try and catalogue the encounters people have with the timber rattlesnake.
“We’re seeing timber rattlesnakes starting to decline in their range here in the United States,” said Oxenrider. “Here in West Virginia we are not very sure. It seems like they’re stable, but he DNR has not done very extensive surveys or monitoring, but West Virginia does have extensive forest habitat which is necessary for timber rattlesnakes.”
The survey started a year ago, a citizens science project, aimed at getting the public to report when and where they had a rattlesnake encounter. The results were encouraging for Oxenrider.
“We actually received about 300 reports in 2017 and now we have been able to get records in 30 counties,” he explained. “We weren’t expecting that many observations, but were very pleased. We hope to get a lot more this year to try and fill out the map.”
Those who run into a rattlesnake in West Virginia are asked to report the encounter on the DNR’s website. There is a special reporting page. Oxenrider hoped each report would be accompanied with a picture.
“One reason for the decline is snake fungal disease which was recently discovered in West Virginia,” said Oxenrider. “We can look at photos and see if they have signs of snake fungal disease.”
Although he was excited to get 300 reports last year and hopes for many more, Oxenrider has no illusions about attitudes toward snakes–especially toward the rattlesnake.
“They get a lot of unjust love,” he laughed. “People have a lot of fear about them and think they’re dangerous. If you are harassing a rattlesnake or trying to grab one and they bite you, yes, they can be dangerous. But if you leave them alone they are not going to bite you.”
In fact, most snakebites in West Virginia and elsewhere,according to Oxenrider happened when people were attempting to kill a snake or interfere with them in some way. Although possible, there are comparably few incidents of people being bitten by rattlesnakes while casually walking near one.
Regardless of your attitude about snakes, the DNR hopes everyone who has a rattlesnake observation will share it with the agency on their database to help catalogue and determine where the snakes are concentrated and their health levels.