ST. GEORGE — Let’s face it. No one wants to have an unexpected encounter with a rattlesnake slithering around the outdoor playgrounds of Southern Utah. Like them or not, rattlesnakes are a protected species in Utah because they play a vital role in the local ecosystem.
The Great Basin is the most common of the five rattlesnake species found in Utah. Snakes are on the move this time of year, seeking food and water during a time when there isn’t a lot of the later to be found. Like humans, rattlesnakes take advantage of the cooler temperatures at dawn and dusk.
People who come across rattlesnakes may think think they need to be taken out for the good of everyone. In fact, the opposite is true. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Public Information Officer Faith Heaton Jolley said rattlesnakes play an important role in keeping public lands hospitable.
“They prey on a lot of the rodent species and kind of keep them in check,” Jolley said. “This can lead to other issues if we have too many rodents.”
Unless a person or their animals are being threatened by a rattlesnake, it is illegal to kill one in Utah. Jolley said a better plan is to shoot rattlesnakes with a camera and upload the photo to the iNaturalist website. iNaturalist is a free service that enables outdoor enthusiasts to post and share information about the organisms they come across.
The iNaturalist application also helps people identify the species they are looking at. Jolley said in many cases, people mistake rattlers for gophersnakes because they hiss and vibrate their tails when stressed. Gophersnakes are non-venomous and have slender tails, long snouts and round pupils. By comparison, rattlers have triangular shaped heads, vertical pupils and wide blunt tails with a rattle.
The best thing to do if someone suspects a rattlesnake is on their property is to call the Division of Wildlife Resources. They have the training and equipment to safely relocate these protected species. Jolley said a better plan, however, is to make yards non-inviting to snakes by removing piles of wood or debris where snakes like to hide. Jolley said bird feeders can also attract snakes in a round about way because rodents hover around them looking for food.
“If you’re seeing a lot of mice, there’s a chance you might also start seeing snakes,” Jolley said.
Keep calm and carry on
Humans aren’t the only ones who enjoy the beautiful landscape in Southern Utah. Rattlesnakes call this place home as well, although they aren’t keen to interact with the land they share with others.
Rattlesnakes like to hang out in rocky areas, often blending in with their surrounds which makes them hard to spot. Outdoor enthusiasts are advised to pay attention to where they walk, and carry a hiking stick if they have one. Wearing boots and long pants can help protect ankles, and flashlights are a good idea when hiking at night. It’s also important not to place hands in between rocks or on ledges where you can’t see the top.
Cedar City rancher Kerry Jensen crossed paths with a rattlesnake in Shurtz Canyon on Cedar Mountain which is around 7,000 feet in elevation. Jensen was moving cows when he spotted a rattler coiled up on a rock, hissing.
“We came by on the horses,” Jensen said. “It was warning us. The cows kind of went around it.”
Rancher Jed Nelson has seen a couple of rattlesnakes near his cabin which sits about 9,000 fee in elevation on Cedar Mountain.
“They were kind of docile,” Nelson said. “I don’t know if it was the elevation.”
It’s easy to get a little freaked out by a rattlesnake, but the best thing to do is to remain calm and give the reptile the right of way. Don’t throw anything at a rattlesnake — it may respond by attacking. Keep pets on leashes when hiking or camping.
Once bitten, twice shy
Rattlesnakes aren’t out looking for people to bite. Most bites happen when humans try to mess with them. Even a dead rattler can bite by reflex action so a good rule of thumb is keep your hands to yourself when it comes to snakes in the wild.
Dr. Terry Messmer, professor and wildlife specialist with Utah State University, said if someone is bitten by a snake, it’s imperative to get medical care as quickly as possible.
“Even if a bite isn’t poisonous, you’re at risk of tetanus, a serious bacterial infection, if your vaccines aren’t up to date,” Dr. Messmer said.
People bitten by rattlesnakes oftentimes panic and make poor decisions. Moving a limb that has been bitten could increase the spread of the venom. The movies sometimes show people trying to suck the venom out of a rattlesnake bite. This is the wrong approach since it could spread the venom to the mouth of the care provider. Dr. Messmer said applying a tourniquet is another bad move.
“Cutting off blood flow to the area of the bite may cause more tissue damage,” Dr. Messmer said.
Anti-venom to the rescue
Rattlesnake bites can damage tissue, harm the body’s circulatory system and cause internal hemorrhaging. Fortunately, there is an anti-venom that can neutralize these conditions if administered in a timely manner.
Intermountain St. George Regional Hospital assesses 15 to 20 snake bites a year. On average, about one-third are dry bites, one-third are mild bites and the rest require anti-venom medication. Dr. Gordon Larsen is an ER physician at the hospital who also serves as the medical director for Zion National Park. Dr. Larsen says the anti-venom treatment works best if given to the patient within six hours of the bite.
“We start by administering a couple of vials and continue until symptoms subside,” Dr. Larsen said. “We may give as many as 25 vials or more.”
Most rattlesnake bite victims who receive anti-venom are generally admitted to the hospital with stays ranging from a few days to a few weeks.
Can we co-exist with rattlesnakes?
There is no reason humans and rattlesnakes can’t peacefully co-exist. There is plenty of room for everyone. Leaving rattlesnakes to mind their own business is a great place to start. Behaving in a calm manner and backing away from rattlesnakes is the best way to avoid getting bit.
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