By Stephanie Noda
For my experiential component for Environmental Writing, I attended the Ramapo Watershed Conference. One of the most interesting lectures was by Randy Stechert, a specialist on timber rattlesnakes, who talked about the anthropogenic impacts of rattlesnakes in the New York/New Jersey Highlands.
Timber rattlesnakes come in two basic color morphs: yellow morph timber rattlesnake and the black morph rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes do not actively go after their prey; they will wait on a log without moving in order to ambush their prey. This method is unlike most other snakes, since black snakes, garden snakes, and water snakes will actively go after their prey. The timber rattlesnake is smart about where they set up an ambush; they will find a rodent pathway, where rodents are bound to turn up. They will sometimes wait over 24 hours for their prey. The timber rattlesnake population of New York State is quite small – they only occupy 7% of the state – but this is unfortunately on the land with the most development. This area is located in the southern part of New York State called Orange County, which is considered one of the fastest growing counties in New York State.
The demise of some of the populations of timber rattlesnakes in the past are linked to “collecting.” It could not officially be called poaching till 1983, when a law was made that proclaimed killing timber rattlesnakes was illegal. 4,000 timber rattle snake were taken from New York State by one man alone over the course of 45 years, Stechert said. This man also “collected” from northern New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Massachusetts as well. According to estimates by Stechert, who knows the whereabouts of about 65% of timber rattle snakes’ “den colonies” in New York State, there are only about 10,000 timber rattle snakes left. This number shows how much damage killing 4,000 could have on snake populations. Today, some populations of timber rattlesnakes are recovering, but some are declining. Due to the effects of the “collecting,” they will probably never been taken off the threatened list, he said.
Development is one of the major problems affecting the population of timber rattlesnakes. A man recently put up 240 homes in Orange County; the development had taken place on a major conservancy property, which caused officials to make the owner donate 222 acres to the conservancy. Stechert did a four year study in this area, where he marked and recaptured timber rattlesnakes. There were two methods he used in tracking the snakes. The fist was just marking the snakes with Sharpie marker on their rattle. The mark will stay in place as long as the rattlesnake does not shed the rattle; Stechert had found these marks on snakes for up to 9 years now. Another way he finds the snakes is through the use of radio telemetry. Usually finding a snake in the woods is like finding a needle in a haystack, he said. If three rattlesnakes are found during one hike through the woods, that’s a lot for the year as a whole. Since the snakes are elusive, the technology of the radio telemetry is necessary to find the timber rattlesnakes. To date, Stechert has found 20,025 timber rattlesnakes, with about 600 recaptures.
To separate the snakes on the 222 acres of conservation from 240 homes, snake beds were created between the snake dens and the development. The snake beds were essentially a giant fence to keep the snakes out: it was made out of 48 inch wide metal mesh and 1 ½ inch hardware claw, which was held vertically in place with reinforcement bars every 8 feet, with the bottom 6 inches sinking into the hummus layer of the soil. However, Stechert’s study found that there were many rattlesnake locations in the development that were past the fence. The development had an excellent foraging habitat for the timber rattlesnakes, since the area of development was on a lowland. The rattlesnakes were determined to get past the fence, finding chipmunk holes to climb through or even traveling thousands of feet around the snake beds to get through to the development area. If the timber rattlesnakes continue to lose their land to development, there is no telling how much more the population of this species will decline.