The Timber Rattlesnake's Big Comeback

  • The timber rattlesnake is the largest of the three venomous snakes found in Pennsylvania. Photo: Yayad via Flickr

July 24, 2015

The timber rattlesnake—Pennsylvania’s largest venomous snake—is on the rebound after several decades of decline. And while this might mean more snake encounters by hikers and campers in the coming years, these vipers are a lot mellower than you might think. To get the latest on the snakes' big comeback, Kara Holsopple spoke with Chris Urban, Chief of the Natural Diversity Section of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission—the agency which oversees rattlesnake populations in the state. Here are some highlights from the interview.

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On current populations of timber rattlesnakes in Pennsylvania

"They’re on the rise. And definitely stable. The north central part of the state is doing very well. There was a period of time from the 1960s through the 1990s where there was some decline noted. And in recent years, after some regulations changed, it seems like they’ve really responded well. So it’s a great success story. And we’re going to continue to monitor their populations into the future.

If you do some really back-of-the-envelope sketches of estimates, it’s in the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of animals. In the areas where they’ve historically occurred that are contiguous—like the north central states that have vast amounts of public lands and state forests—they’ve been doing fairly well there. Now, when you get to the periphery of those areas in the northeast and southeast—when you start to have development close by—these animals will start to stray out into people’s backyards. Then, they usually meet with a brutal end—the back of a shovel—because people are concerned about their children and pets."

On regulations that have helped rattlesnakes

"Early in the 1990s, we went to a limit of one on how many snakes you could take with a permit. And that seemed to make a big difference. Then, in 2007, we passed some more regulations that actually protected females and young by allowing people to only take adult males. So therefore we were protecting the young snakes and the females. That seemed to make a big difference too.

There are a couple of different things we do to manage them. There are known gestation spots that have become grown over. And these animals need sun, to warm up, to gestate. So if you open those areas, you are actually helping the population. And there is reactive management we do, where we work with the development community and review permits and make recommendations. For example, if there are sitings for well pads or pipelines that are going right through gestation or denning areas, we’ll recommend some project modifications to move things, or perhaps have a snake monitor on site that can move snakes out of harm’s way."

What to do if you encounter a rattlesnake

"When most people encounter a rattlesnake, they’re very frightened by it, if they don’t understand their natural history—and even their temperament. On a scale of one to 10 of all our Pennsylvania snakes, I would say they’re maybe a one or a two, because they’re very mellow and docile animals. People think of them as being this dangerous animal that reaches out to grab you and that’s not the case at all. When you’re around, they're going to be very quiet, or they’re going to rattle to give you a warning that they’re there. If you do encounter a timber rattlesnake, give it some distance. But two to three feet is actually far enough. Let them go their merry way or just walk on by them."

To read more about The Allegheny Front's encounters with timber rattlesnakes, check out this story.