After enlisting the aid of the public in gauging the range and identifying the population centers of timber rattlesnakes in West Virginia in a three-year survey, state Division of Natural Resources biologists are again seeking the public’s help in tracking rattlers in two snake-friendly state forests.
A statewide citizen survey of timber rattlesnake sightings launched in 2017 helped DNR biologists identify the locations of more than 400 individual rattlers by the time the survey ended late last year. From that data, biologists were able to determine the most likely locations for humans and rattlesnakes to cross paths.
As it turned out, Kanawha State Forest, near Charleston, and Coopers Rock State Forest, on the Monongalia-Preston County line east of Morgantown, are among the top spots in the state for people to encounter timber rattlers.
That research led a group of Marshall University graduate students to begin a translocation study, examining the effects of moving rattlers to reduce contact with humans — one of their top threats, in addition to habitat loss.
Last year, the Marshall grad students captured and attached miniature radio transmitters to the rattles of 30 rattlesnakes residing in the two state forests, and began tracking their movement to determine their home range.
This year and next year, two groups of rattlesnakes from each forest will be moved and monitored. One group at each forest will be relocated to a new site within their home range, while a second group will be relocated to a site beyond their home range. A third group at each forest will remain in place, and serve as a control population.
The idea is to see how well the snakes adapt to an unplanned change in territory, compared to the control group, and determine whether they will attempt to return to their home range. That information will help DNR biologists determine if rattlesnakes found in areas frequently traveled by people can be moved to more remote locations without harming the snakes.
“We have three groups of snakes that we’re watching and what we learn is going to be very beneficial to our understanding of how movement affects rattlesnakes,” said Elizabeth Johnson, one of the MU grad students involved with the project. “So, if you’re at Kanawha or Coopers Rock state forests and see a rattlesnake, let park employees know about it and they will do their best to to catch that snake” for use in the study, she said.
The timber rattlesnake — the only rattlesnake species found in the state — was designated West Virginia’s official state reptile in 2008. Its population has been in decline for a number of years and it is considered a “vulnerable” species, subject to possible extinction, by state wildlife officials.
Habibat loss and encounters with snake-fearing humans are among the timber rattlesnake’s biggest threats. The timber rattler and the copperhead are the only two poisonous snakes residing in West Virginia.
“Every snake you see in your yard, in the woods or in a park fills a role in our ecosystem,” Johnson said. In the case of the timber rattler, helping control the small mammal population is one of its prime roles, she said.
“I know a lot of people are afraid of snakes, but I promise they don’t want to hurt you or your family,” Johnson said. “If you see a rattlesnake, it’s best just to leave them alone.”