Don’t get rattled!
If you’re heading out to walk/fish the Yakima River, the Icicle River or any other spots east of the Cascade Range keep your eyes open for snakes. I’ve had two close encounters moving along rocks as I looked for yet a better spot to toss flys towards wily trout.
Phil Ferolito – Yakim Herald
“After years of walking up the Cowiche Canyon Conservancy’s Snow Mountain without any problems, Cyndi Mullenhoff said she had her first scary encounter with a rattlesnake last spring.
She was walking through sagebrush and stepped over what looked like a stick, until it moved and she heard a rattling sound.
“They don’t make a noise like on TV,” Mullenhoff said. “They make a noise like oil frying in a pan or something.”
She said the snake attempted to strike twice but was obstructed by the sagebrush it had slithered under.
Mullenhoff said she immediately ran down the hill.
In her many years walking that hillside, she’s seen maybe five snakes in all.
“I’ve never had one do that,” she said.
Such experiences are rare. Even rarer are rattlesnake bites. About five bites are reported each year in Washington. Experts say your chances of being struck by lightning are greater.
Even so, fear of rattlesnakes runs high among many who are quick to grab a shovel or gun when they cross paths with one.
Much of that fear is based on misconceptions that grow whenever someone is bitten, said Central Washington University herpetologist Daniel Beck.
“When you do get a rattlesnake bite, it makes the news and people are already automatically afraid of snakes,” he said. “We just exaggerate the risk.”
Many believe rattlesnakes are aggressive with a long striking distance and that they always attack humans with venomous bite. Not true, Beck says.
Rattlesnakes are as afraid of humans as humans are of them and typically won’t strike unless cornered.
Rattlesnakes here typically grow to about 3 feet and have a striking distance up to a foot-and-a-half. Beck said.
And they don’t always inject venom in bites unless they are hunting a small animal they are going to eat, he said.
“About 50 percent of rattlesnakes do not inject venom when they strike a human,” Beck said. “That’s a defensive strike. They’re not going to eat you.
Beck says anyone who is bitten should go to a hospital as soon as possible, but it’s not as if they have a short time to live. While bites can be life-threatening, there’s usually time to administer treatment; an average of just one in 50 million people dies annually in the United States from all venomous snake bites, according to the University of Florida.
“If you can’t get to a hospital right away, you’re not going to die,” Beck said. “Just get to a hospital as soon as you can.”
Swelling and bruising typically follows a rattlesnake bite, but treatment involving the administration of anti-venom is fairly easy, he said.
Horses, livestock and dogs usually survive rattlesnake bites, he said.
Wendy Shaw, who volunteers with CWU’s snake program and rescues snakes off of roads, says she responds to complaints about snakes from rural property owners.
“The biggest concern is: ‘There’s a rattlesnake on our property and how do we make it go away,’ ” she said. “Some will learn that a den is on their property and want to destroy it, which is not going to happen. We’ll bring in the state Department of Fish and Wildlife if we have to.”
Most rural landowners she speaks to are afraid of rattlesnakes and would rather kill them than anything else, but she tries to educate them about the snake, informing them if they step back it will most likely pass by without any trouble.
One rancher told her he kills every one he sees. She said she kept in touch with him, talking to him about snakes. The talks seem to do good, she said.
One day, he called her to tell her he used a stick to remove a rattler from his property without killing it. “He hasn’t killed a rattlesnake since — that was about five years ago,” she said.
She’s even gone as far as introducing ranchers to snakes at the den at CWU in hopes they will have a better understanding of rattlesnakes.
There, students are studying about 10 rattlesnakes that are being kept in the den.
Killing rattlesnakes at will or destroying a rattlesnake den could impact the environment, Beck said.
Rattlesnakes eat rodents, keeping that population under control, and large birds eat rattlesnakes, Beck said.
“We don’t understand everything, but there are a lot of connections in nature with rattlesnakes,” he said.
Beck said people are can view the den in the school’s science building. His students are providing the public with information about rattlesnakes and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has information online explaining how to respond when encountering a rattlesnake or when bitten.
“If you take the fear away and replace it with respect, then you will look at them in a totally different way,” he said. “If you’re hiking in the canyon and you see a rattlesnake, there’s no reason to get all upset. You just step back; you’re probably not going to get bit.”
Photo: National Geographic