Snow Shoe, Pa. — Blood splotches stained the top of a large rock. Many smaller stones – the weapons of mass destruction – also littered the flat-topped boulder. It was a sight disturbing to the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission officers and staff, who investigated the case.
A serious wildlife crime occurred in Centre County nearly a year ago – the blood and stones, evidence to the evil act. A person or persons killed seven or more timber rattlesnakes in the Sproul State Forest north of Snow Shoe.
Since each of those rattlesnakes was a helpless, gravid (pregnant) female, that person likely killed 70 to 100 snakes on that mid-June day.
“We investigated the incident and every lead was followed to no avail,” said Gerald Barton, northcentral law enforcement supervisor for the commission.
“This crime would fall under recent ‘serious unlawful taking’ legislation that was passed by the Pennsylvania Legislature early last year. Persons found guilty of taking three or more times the daily limit would be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor and subject to a $500-$5,000 fine and up to two years imprisonment.”
The commission withheld the details last summer because it was an ongoing investigation. According to those involved from the agency, it is possible that the perpetrators thought that they were doing the world a favor, and maybe did not even know that they were breaking a law.
However, the rattlesnakes were found back a gated state forest road and not near any populated area. The killing of those snakes was senseless and totally illegal.
The timber rattlesnake inhabits 51 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. It is listed as a “candidate species” – its population is being studied for possible identification as a state endangered or threatened species. One must have a fishing license and a special permit to hunt for rattlesnakes. The limit is one snake per person, per year.
According to Fish & Boat Commission non-game and endangered species coordinator Chris Urban, about 900 people apply for a venomous snake permit each year. Of that 900, over 80 percent do not kill a snake. They only observe snakes or practice catch and release. Most rattlesnake hunters care deeply about the resource.
Contrary to popular myths, timber rattlesnakes are quite docile – not aggressive. According to Urban, they avoid humans, if given the chance.
Snakes, particularly venomous snakes, are often the target of unnecessary persecution. Rattlesnakes, like other native species, have a role in our forest ecology.
Urban called them one of our “most mellow” snakes. “They perform an ecological service – out there to hunt mice and chipmunks, not people. Mice might be furry and cute, but they carry diseases and cause more problems than any snake,” he said.
Rattlesnakes don’t chase you down and attack you, Barton emphasized. “There is no excuse for killing a snake that isn’t threatening you,” he said. “Someone who kills a snake out of animosity or just for thrills is disturbing to me.”
Timber rattlesnakes mate in July, August or September, with the female giving birth the following August or September.
Beginning in late May, gravid females gather at what are known as gestation rocks. According to Urban, the snakes prefer big flat slabs, often situated on top of other rocks. These sites must receive six to eight hours of solar exposure per day, with the top rock gaining and holding heat.
There may be as many as 25 snakes – all females – at one rock. Urban noted that a typical number in Pennsylvania would be three to a dozen snakes at one site, with an average of about six. According to Urban, the snakes at the basking rock are often related – showing a matriarchal organization.
“We are still learning about rattlesnakes, but this relationship hints at some type of social structure,” Urban said.
“The gravid females bask on the rocks to help their immune systems and to increase their metabolic rate. This moves along embryo development.”
While at a gestation rock, the snakes do not hunt or eat. Sometime in August or September, the females move 10 to 15 yards away from the rock and give birth to five to 17 young.
Although this might seem like a high number, rattlesnakes actually have a very low reproductive rate. Females are not sexually mature until their fourth or fifth year, and they only give birth, on average, once every three years during their adult life. Therefore, a 7-year-old snake would likely have given birth only once.
In addition, young rattlesnakes have a very low survival rate. Comparatively, a robin of that age would have raised more than 60 offspring. A bullfrog would have laid thousands of eggs.
“A kill such as the one occurring last year in Centre County would put a significant dent in a local population,” commented Urban. “If the population were already small, it might never recover.”
Fish & Boat Commission officers do not normally remove problem snakes. That is left up to private wildlife contractors. Due to the timber rattlesnake’s candidate status, however, Barton pointed out that commission officers will come to remove a rattlesnake, rather than having it killed by the landowner.
Anyone with a lead about who might have illegally killed the rattlesnakes in the Sproul State Forest last June is asked to contact the Fish & Boat Commission’s Northcentral Regional Office in Bellefonte, at 814-359-5250.
“Rattlesnakes are the last true wild thing that we have in Pennsylvania,” Barton said. “In the northcentral region, they represent the last remnant of what this state once was.”