“West Virginia is rattlesnake country.”
The man who said that, Kevin Oxenrider, wants it to stay that way. That’s why he’s coordinating a pair of research projects to learn more about the timber rattlesnake, the only rattlesnake species native to the Mountain State.
One study, being conducted by students at Marshall University, is designed to develop a better and more effective way to move rattlers away from areas frequented by humans. The other seeks to determine where in West Virginia rattlesnakes tend to live.
The answer to the latter question is pretty straightforward — they’re more widespread than people might think.
“They’re dispersed across the state pretty ubiquitously,” said Oxenrider, a biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. “They’re not as common in the Northern Panhandle as they are in the rest of the state, but, across most of the state, you can find them just about anywhere.”
To determine the species’ distribution, DNR officials asked West Virginians to report rattlesnake sightings to a page on the agency’s website, wvdnr.gov/rattlesnakereport. More than 400 observations have been submitted so far, and Oxenrider expects more to come in by the end of the year, when the public-involvement portion of the study is scheduled to end.
Based on data gathered so far, Oxenrider said a couple of things have become clear.
“The conventional wisdom was that timber rattlers are found primarily in rocky upland areas,” he added. “They are, but we’re also finding that they occur in lower areas where we wouldn’t have expected to find them before. We’re also finding them in several new counties.”
The crowd-sourced study also helped DNR researchers identify where rattlers and humans most often cross paths. That information, in turn, triggered the investigation by MU researchers.
“The main point of the Marshall study is to come up with a better way of moving rattlesnakes that show up in high-use recreation areas,” Oxenrider said. “We want to be able to move them without disturbing them too much, and then not have them come back.”
Rattlesnakes have specific home ranges. Part of the research will attempt to determine just how large those individual ranges are. The other part will determine how rattlers react when they’re moved within, and outside of, those ranges.
The study is taking place in two popular recreation areas — Coopers Rock State Forest, near Morgantown, and Kanawha State Forest, near Charleston. Both areas attract lots of visitors, and both are home to plenty of rattlesnakes.
“The goal was to capture 30 animals at each location, and to equip them with radio transmitters so they could be tracked,” Oxenrider said. “I don’t think they had a problem finding that many snakes at either location.”
To radio-track snakes, biologists usually implant small transmitters into the animals’ bodies. Oxenrider said the MU researchers took a different tack.
“It’s kind of cool,” he said. “They’ve come up with a way of attaching transmitters to the snakes’ rattles. They’re finding the snakes don’t shed off the radio. They figure the likelihood of losing a transmitter is somewhat higher this way, but not enough to offset the risk to the animal that surgical implantation would pose.”
In this, the first year of the project, researchers are learning the rattlers’ home ranges. Next year, they plan to select a few snakes at random and move them various distances away.
“One group will be moved within their home ranges, one will be moved outside their home ranges, and the control group won’t be moved at all,” Oxenrider said.
The snakes will be studied to see how they respond to being moved.
“We want to know if the snakes have homing behavior that will cause them to return,” Oxenrider said, “and we also want to know if movement has an impact on the snake by moving it away from its den sites or overwintering sites. There’s also the question of whether moving them will cause their demise because they’ll have to cross a road or move through an area frequented by people.”
Investing so much effort to understand a creature so widely feared and reviled might not make sense to some people, but Oxenrider said it might help to preserve a species that is in trouble in many of the states where it’s found.
“Rattlesnakes are of conservation interest because they are declining,” he added. “West Virginia is a stronghold because the state has so much contiguous habitat.”
Even in West Virginia, where timber rattlers are common, Oxenrider said the species loses far too many individuals because people simply won’t tolerate their presence.
“There’s a perception that snakes are dangerous animals, but, really, they want nothing to do with us, because they don’t want to use up their venom on us,” he said. “The vast majority of people who get bitten are bitten when they try to kill the animal. If a rattlesnake shows up in your yard, chances are it’s just passing through. Shoot it with a water hose from a distance and it’ll move away. If we learn to live harmoniously with rattlers, everybody wins.”