Timber rattlers visiting yards, making headlines in southeast Minnesota

The author’s dad, Robert L. Drieslein, photographed this timber rattler on Wednesday adjacent to his driveway in southern Winona County.

Timber rattlers have made headlines in southeast Minnesota the past couple of weeks, especially in my old Winona stomping grounds. The DNR even held a public meeting with concerned citizens on Monday at Winona’s Holzinger Lodge. About 50 people turned out.

The recent hot, humid weather has boosted temperatures on the ridgetop habitats that rattlers frequent, and that has pushed them down into residential areas, the DNR says. The Winona County Sheriff’s Department reports a higher number of rattlesnake calls and complaints this summer. (A little perspective here: The Winona Daily News reported that, as of July 25, the local sheriff’s department had received 15 snake calls, and about half of them were actual rattlesnakes.)

On Wednesday afternoon, my parents had a close encounter with a rattler they’d seen earlier on a trail below their home between Winona and Houston. They’ve bumped into a few of these pit vipers on their 90-acre property during summers over the years, but June and July of 2019 have been exceptional. If they’ve seen a half-dozen rattlers during the previous 20 years on the place, they’ve probably had almost that many encounters in just the past six weeks.

Though my mom may beg to differ given the recent activity, they’ve generally kept an open mind about these native snakes that rarely cause problems for humans. That said, they’ve been dog-sitting for my sister’s golden retriever, and despite having open acreage perfect for a bounding sporting breed, they’ve kept Wrigley leashed, even when walking him in their mowed yard.

Yet while walking the canine up on the driveway yesterday, Wrigley still came within inches of a healthy rattler that had slithered into the adjacent lawn. Luckily, the snake wasn’t coiled, and Dad quickly pulled the dog out of harm’s way.

Minnesota allowed bounties on rattlesnakes until 1989, and timber rattlers went on the state threatened species list in 1996 (so it’s illegal to kill them.) Perhaps, says biologist Stephen Winter, the reptiles are rebounding a bit on the northern edge of their range. There’s no solid analytical data to support that ,but certainly anecdotal reports would suggest there are more rattlers this summer.

Winter volunteers for a snake responder network that local police and sheriff departments in the southeast can contact when a homeowner encounters a snake. He’s made several visits so far this year, and volunteers like him will capture the snakes and move them somewhere away from people.

He attended the public meeting Monday and said the crowd asked good questions about dealing with snakes and expressed strong gratitude about the snake responder network. Some folks advocated for a stronger responder network, and no one demanded that local law enforcement or the DNR exterminate local rattlers.

Winter has been volunteering for the roughly 10-member responder network for five years and says he’s had a personal interest in snakes for as long as he can remember. He said he thinks rattlers have an undeserved bad reputation.

“I view them as the underdogs given the level of persecution they get,” Winter said. “They’re really threatened in a number of states, and there’s a definite conservation need with this species.”

We rarely hear of a person being bitten by a venomous snake in this part of the world, and I can’t remember anyone being seriously injured or dying from a snakebite. Nonetheless, as North American snake venom goes, timber rattlers have a fairly fierce reputation. Of timber rattlers, Wikipedia says: “Potentially, this is one of North America’s most dangerous snakes, due to its long fangs, impressive size, and high venom yield. This is to some degree offset by its relatively mild disposition…”

So if you’re the one-in-a-million tromping around who gets bitten, find medical attention immediately. Hospitals in snake country usually keep some anti-venom.

Given that my sister’s pup almost received a dose of venom yesterday, I wondered if veterinarians carry anti-venom in bluff country. For an answer, I checked in with a coulee region vet I interviewed back in 1992 during my Winona Daily News days. Mark Hein owns his Van Loon Animal Hospital across the Mississippi River near Holmen, Wis.

Hein said some vet clinics in the area keep snake venom handy, especially on the Minnesota side and especially during the summer months when snake activity peaks. Given the recent reports, he has some anti-venom on order. He was aware of a dog that indeed had a snake bite last summer in Perrot State Park at Trempealeau, Wis.

Weighing less than people, dogs presumably would suffer even more from a dose of snake venom, though some species have more immunity to it than others.

This scribe is glad southeast Minnesota has rattlesnakes – gives the region an edge and a touch of personality, plus they’re muscle for keeping out the riff-raff small mammals. Another old Winona crony, Jerome Christenson, likes them, too.

If you’re out for a walk in bluff country and see a snake, go figure. Give it some space and it’ll go the other way. Keep your pets away. If it’s coming into your yard, contact the local police and they’ll contact the snake responder squad. I’ll let you know what happens with the big specimen on my parents’ ranch.

Categories: Rob Drieslein

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