Fish & Wildlife works to recover Vermont’s timber rattlesnakes

News Release — Vermont Fish & Wildlife
June 11, 2013

Vermont Fish & Wildlife biologist Doug Blodgett carefully examines a timber rattlesnake in western Rutland County to check it for signs of snake fungal disease, a condition that has struck several species of snakes in Vermont.  Photo by Tom Rogers, Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.

Vermont Fish & Wildlife biologist Doug Blodgett carefully examines a timber rattlesnake in western Rutland County to check it for signs of snake fungal disease, a condition that has struck several species of snakes in Vermont. Photo by Tom Rogers, Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.

RUTLAND — The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department has been working with researchers at The Nature Conservancy and the Orianne Society to conserve a piece of Vermont’s unique natural heritage, the timber rattlesnake. They have captured rattlesnakes from the wild and implanted radio transmitters under their skin as part of a two-year study of timber rattlesnake habitat and movements in western Rutland County.

The researchers have also been working to determine the extent and severity of a condition referred to as ‘snake fungal disease’ that has recently begun afflicting Vermont’s timber rattlesnakes. Snake fungal disease causes blisters or brown, crusty lesions on the face and neck of infected individuals.

Biologist Doug Blodgett leads the timber rattlesnake project for the Fish & Wildlife Department. “We first documented the lesions on timber rattlesnakes in 2012,” said Blodgett. “Since then, the condition has been observed in several species of snakes throughout Vermont. It’s difficult to assess the effects of this disease on individuals, but it does appear to be associated with population declines in neighboring states.”

Timber rattlesnakes are one of eleven species of native snakes in Vermont. They once ranged throughout the Champlain Valley, but are now found only in two isolated populations in western Rutland County.

The fate of timber rattlesnakes in Vermont is uncertain. The loss of critical habitat, collection for the black market pet trade, and indiscriminate killing have depressed populations to state-endangered status, and snake fungal disease may exacerbate these problems. Together with other snake species, timber rattlesnakes help control rodent populations, which would cause crop damage and spread diseases such as Lyme without limits from predators.

“There’s always been a strong cultural bias against rattlesnakes due to sensationalized Hollywood depictions of these animals as highly aggressive, stalking menaces of the forest,” said Blodgett. “Nothing could be further from the truth. In my dozen years of experience working with rattlesnakes in Vermont, I’ve been most impressed with how docile, tolerant and secretive these animals are. They do just about anything to avoid confrontation with people.”

Public perception of rattlesnakes is changing as people gain a better understanding of this species. Fear and hatred are giving way to interest and curiosity, as people begin to appreciate the important role that rattlesnakes play in the ecosystem.

While most rattlesnakes in Vermont remain in remote areas, they are occasionally found near people. The Fish & Wildlife Department urges Vermonters who find a rattlesnake in their yard to avoid handling the snake and to contact the Rattlesnake Removal Program by calling 802-241-3700 to have the snake safely relocated by a trained expert.

“These animals are the original native Vermonters. They’ve been here for thousands of years and are an intergral part of our ecosystem and our wildlife heritage,” said Blodgett. “I see them as a symbol of something still untamed and wild in a fairly tame landscape. They deserve our protection and stewardship.”

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