Iowa aiding timber rattlers
IOWA DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES
McGREGOR—-It’s the end of October and air and ground temperatures are cooling rapidly. For the cold blooded reptiles that inhabit the rugged bluff country northeastern Iowa, it’s time to head for underground denning areas.
Prowling the winding back roads of Clayton County, DNR Conservation Officer Burt Walters is currently observing the slow speed migration. Today the skies are mostly clear, a somewhat rare event this autumn, and snakes are on the move. So far this morning, Walters has spotted more than 50 snakes—- mostly red-bellied, little brown, and a handful of garters, all enroute to the safety of limestone fissures that will offer winter protection.
But the species Walters hopes most to encounter is the timber rattlesnake, a formidable creature most folks choose to avoid. Walters is a natural born native of the McGregor hill country, and has been actively studying these intriguing pit vipers for more than 20 years. Alarmed by the rattlesnake’s dramatic decline, he conducts an ongoing crusade aimed at educating the public on the biological importance of what he considers to be a desirable member of the Iowa outdoors.
“It’s alarming,” says Walters. “At the denning sites that I know of, rattlesnake populations have been reduced by at least 50 percent since the 1980s and are still declining.”
The scenario is the result of a complex chain of events, and no single factor is solely responsible for the decline, says Walters. Habitat destruction is listed among the culprits. As more and more homes are built atop scenic bluffs and ridgelines, there are less and less places for timber rattlers and other wildlife to live. Also included among habitats in decline are the so called “goat prairies” that once flourished along the near vertical slopes of bluffland ridges and are now vanishing as cedars and other invasive shrubs take over. Historically, landowners would set fire to the goat prairies hoping the flames would destroy snakes, says Walters. Quite to the contrary, the fires enhanced prairie growth which attracted native mice, voles, and insects which provided an ample food source for rattlers, skinks, and other Iowa herpitiles.
There is also a problem with snake poachers. In spite of being legally protected, rattlesnakes are still being harvested by poachers who supply the exotic pet trade—- mostly for people who still think it’s cool to have something dangerous in their home.
“Collecting can have a very serious and rapid impact on populations,” says Walters. “Timber rattlers have a low reproductive potential and it takes a male anywhere from 5 to 7 years to mature. It takes a female from 7 to 11 years to mature and after that she’ll only bear young every third year. When people take snakes from communal den sites it doesn’t take long to have an effect.”
Those effects became painfully apparent this spring as Walters inspected an Allamakee County den site. Trails leading to the site had been marked with strips of blue plastic flagging, certain evidence that rattlesnake poachers had already paid a visit to the den. Look as he might, Walters could only find two surviving rattlesnakes at a site that should have held dozens.
Although scenes like that are disheartening, Walters hasn’t given up the crusade to educate Iowans on the virtues of this venomous reptile. Since the late 1980s, he’s traveled up and down the Mississippi River showing live reptiles and giving “snake talks” to countless school groups [more than 65 on the best years], service and conservation organizations, and just about anyone else who cares to listen to his message. One of the biggest events, he says, was the EMS Venomous Bite Day.
Held for two years at Calmar, the program played to a completely packed house each time and remains one of his most requested presentations.
“One of the things I stress is that timber rattlesnakes just want to be left alone,” says Walters. “They are not highly aggressive, and most people will never see one. They are, in fact, a very valuable and desirable member of the wildlife community. Their venom is currently being used in experiments with heart disease, arthritis, and other human ailments. At this point, their benefits to humans may even surpass what people currently realize.”
There are encouraging signs that the education is beginning to pay dividends. One of those was the overwhelming public support for legislation that has now protected timber rattlesnakes in their northeastern Iowa strongholds. By contrast, similar legislation aimed at protecting remnant populations of timber rattlers in central Iowa failed miserably due to profound lack of public support.
Earlier this fall, Walters was notified by police radio that a four-foot long timber rattler was causing something of a stir among of users of the Guttenberg City Park.
When he arrived sometime later, the hefty reptile was being held at bay by a group of onlookers. Walters promptly captured the snake and safely returned it to a nearby den site.
“Incidents like that give me hope,” says Walters. “Until recently, people would have immediately killed that snake on the spot. Today, I think more and more people are beginning to realize that that isn’t the thing to do anymore and that timber rattlers are a natural part of the wildlife community.”