On Herping with Speckled Rattlesnakes

A note to herpers in AZ as we enter July and begin the monsoon season. In particular: those looking for Speckled Rattlesnakes.


This is definitely not aimed at any one person one group, but a common trajectory that plays out again and again. If this is you, listen up. This isn’t criticism; this is to help you see more snakes in the future and progress at what you love to do. I’m also going to attempt to avoid the rant-format that these types of posts tend to take on.

This is when you might find groups of Speckled Rattlesnakes (or other species, sometimes together), in small groups on your hikes. That’s one of the most exciting feelings you can have. I remember very well the season where things finally started to feel like it all made sense and I could find specks at will any morning.

But something happened to those spots, and I want to talk about it so you can avoid making the same mistakes that I did, and many of us make early on. You don’t have to listen of course, but I guarantee that if you do, both you and the snakes you want to see will benefit.

The microhabitat that low-desert rattlesnakes choose for estivation and gestation sites is very specific. You can have a giant group of hillsides and ravines that all boil down to a handful of small holes where they gather to stay cool and safe throughout the hottest part of the year. These sites may be one of many they rotate between, but sometimes it appears to be just one, especially in areas where hikers and development have limited their options.

These summer sites are the hinge that their entire lives revolve on. They are every bit as sensitive and critically-important as Winter dens for snakes in cooler environments. They are easily impacted and can be destroyed by what may seem like nothing.

Speckled Rattlesnakes can be easily disturbed and may alter their behavior.

So if you are visiting for starting to find these groups as described, here’s how this is going to go:

This year you’re going to see so many specks – it’s going to be amazing, tons of photos, lots of learning, so many great experiences, etc. You’ll note the locations, and feel like everything is finally starting to come together into a greater understanding of it all.

You’ll invite some friends … close ones you trust of course … life is good.

You will return to check on these sites a few times a week, sometimes even the next day. You hook them out if they start to retreat and pose them up for some great close-ups – they crawl off just fine, what’s the harm? You come home and post those photos right away so the world can see.

Sometimes you can’t make it and your friends go without you. Sometimes they invite friends as well … close ones they trust of course.

But next year, you’ll come back to those sites and you’ll only see a handful of the snakes you saw before. Maybe it’s a bad year … the moon? Humidity too low? Who knows. You’ll keep visiting those sites hoping for a different result, but nothing changes. You spend most of your free herping time visiting old sites instead of exploring new ones. You still see great things, but not as great as last year! You do start to notice more footprints in that wash though, maybe a discarded gatorade bottle on the ground. Oh well, next year will be better.

The next year comes and now the weather and moon must really be bad, because there are no snakes at all at these spots. Where’d they go! There’s one snake deep in shed at one of them, but where are the others? There are now unrecognized footprints in the wash every time you go. You start recognizing rocks in photos from friends of friends of friends. You start seeing snakes you recognize on Instagram photos in hotel rooms. Herping starts to feel frustrating as you can’t decide on whether or not to explore for new spots or go check the old ones and hope something is happening.
The next year, the site is dead. Occasionally a random snake is there, but it’s nothing of what it was a few years ago. The last time you went there, too, you ran into a couple of guys you don’t know from out of state who heard this was a good place.

So now the choice you’ll have: evaluate what happened, or carry on and repeat this process?

The dopamine response we all develop to seeing and sharing rattlesnake experiences is strong. It’s like ordering a pizza and as soon as it arrives, throwing it in the fridge and going to bed hungry. It can make truly evaluating our actions in the field and potential impact to critical habitat nearly impossible. It’s also the biggest enemy to having repeat encounters; to move past the point of herping being a series of random events, it’s also important to overcome.

Just the act of waiting a few weeks to post photos of finds can help distribute traffic to even the best-known and well-herped sites.

Here’s what happens:

Small stress events, even ones that we don’t even notice … like getting a close up cellphone shot and the snake never tongue-flicks, build up. There are numerous studies of stress-response in several species of rattlesnakes (specks aren’t one of those, yet) if you want to look at it in depth. Those repeated stress events cause the behavior of the snakes to change. Sometimes it just means they’ll spend more time under bushes and out of view and they’re harder to detect, so you walk past more of them instead of the wide-open ambush positions you’re used to. But with these low-desert snakes, they tend to leave entirely. They may end up at a different estivation area. Sometimes that site isn’t as good as the one they originally selected, and sometimes that has negative consequences for the snake, up to and including death.

A single event, or managed stress events that are spaced out adequately avoid this effect. However, there are exceptions.

Rattlesnakes die at a surprisingly low temperature. Once the body gets into there 105-110 range, they are on death’s door. Even if they crawl away seemingly fine, they may not recover. On hot nights, specks will sit out until they are only a few degrees shy of their upper terminal temperature, then make a bee-line for cover. If you are buzzed during this process, then hold it up for a 20 minute photo session, then let it crawl away rattling to cover, you very well may have killed that snake and you will never know it. If the place they retreat to after the encounter is not suitable to survive a 110F+ inferno for the day: it’s dead.

Would you visit a horridus den and hook the snakes out the crevices to photograph? Would you pull them out in the coldst days of winter and pose them on open ice for a half hour shoot and let them crawl off into the snow? Would you flip every rock in a stream for hellbenders and pose them in the sun before releasing them into the sand? Would you dig an eastern massasauga out of a crawfish burrow for photos and leave it in the sun? Of course not – these are ridiculous actions that we know have consequences. For whatever reason, the nature of critical microhabitat for hot-desert species is largely missing from the herper lexicon.

It might be that the perceived abundance of rattlesnakes in Arizona makes it harder to see. It could be that, despite rattlesnakes in general being one of the most well-studied vertebrates on the planet, what they do when temps get to 110F is poorly documented. It could be that they are common animals in common places, so people simply don’t care if they are negatively affected. It could also be, and this is what I assume to be unfortunately true in many cases: the potential for damage is known, but the draw for the excitement of experience and sharing make it less important. I am sure we have all seen specks posed in the open on rocks where the shadow positions reveal the time by herpers who are experienced to know better. I can only guess why this feels acceptable.

Maybe it’s because they never see the results, other than the die-off of estivation sites each year. If that’s just chalked up to “must be a bad year”, as it tends to be, the lesson is never learned personally. Unfortunately, that mess is apparent to those who look for it.

A couple of us are working on a research project in a few areas that are often herped. There is nothing stated above that has not been well-documented, and eventually published. We set out to learn about where and when snakes use different microhabitat. As it progresses, however, the regretful picture of just how quickly well-intentioned herpers can kill off critical habitat is emerging. I hate it, but it’s right there and can’t be ignored. Once an area is discovered by herpers and visited frequently, it changes dramatically. Compared to similar sites that are either not herped or herped at spaced intervals to manage stress, repeated visits by groups of well-intentioned herpers is third in line of destruction of those sites to development and transient use.

Single or rare stress events, even if substantial, seem to not have any impact. Limiting visits to a sensitive site to just a handful a year can mitigate the negative issues I’ve described here. It’s an investment. You’re trading dopamine for future encounters.

This is what gives the Arizona herping community a bad reputation as people who go overboard on coming down on how and where people herp. There’s a reason for this: this is one of the herping hotspots of the world. Every person who seems over the top in their approach is coming from a position of watching sensitive sites be decimated each year. So while that message can certainly be handled better, try and see the underlying message.

All of this is why it seems you can’t so much as post a cell-phone shot of a snake here in Arizona without a bunch of old-timers coming out of the woodwork to tell you you’re doing it wrong. The fact is: they are right, but they need to put it in a better package. Let’s be honest about all this: we all know each other because we like reptiles, not because we’re all aligned on a social level.

So I’m asking you to try this: next time you see a speck in a wash, ask yourself:

Do you want to see this snake again? Is this more enjoyable as a one-off experience, or as an observation spot to visit for a lifetime?

Is my understanding and sharing of this experience better as a piled stress-ball, or as numerous future observations and hundreds of photographs of what this snake actually does?

Is approaching this snake up close for a cell-shot worth it. Is what I am doing hurting or helping?

Is it worth it to post that photo the moment I get home? Is the experience less enjoyable if I wait until after estivation season to do it?

If you don’t think that people can triangulate your position based on a telephone pole and a dirt road in the background, you’re wrong … and thanks for the site 😉

If you think that a snake wasn’t bothered by you because it didn’t tongue flick after that up close cellphone shot: come back in 10 minutes and see where it’s at.

If you don’t think that hundreds of people planning AZ monsoon trips, some much less well-intentioned or ethical as you are, aren’t watching every move you make and every photo you post: be aware that they are.

If you value the experience of visiting specks at the sites you’ve found: please consider all of this.

Or, disregard if you like. Just remember it in a few years when that speck honey-hole seems to have dried up. Guess what: it’s not the full moon.

Limiting stress events to a snake like this can help ensure I’ll be able to watch it for years to come.

Why Relocate Harmless Snakes?

Along with many hundreds of rattlesnakes each year, harmless and beneficial reptile species are often captured and moved a short distance at the request of Arizona homeowners. Gophersnakes, Kingsnakes, Groundsnakes, Coachwhips – even lizards such as Chuckwallas – are gently stuffed into a bucket and escorted elsewhere.

This leads to an obvious and common question that we are asked when this is discussed. Why would anyone want to move a harmless species of snake from their yard? And, why would an ethical wildlife services business do so when asked? These are very good questions, and rather than mention it in our social media comments, I’ll address the topic here so it can be answered in detail.

Before diving in, it’s important to understand the goals of snake-relocation and prevention as a practice. There are many ethical considerations that sometimes conflict with one another, and having clear criteria laid out can help form best-practice procedures. There are many masters to serve, and balance between them is not cut and dry. Some are of equal importance, where any action must take multiple priorities into consideration.

Primary considerations of equal weight for any action:

  1. Benefit to the snake. Is the action impact survivable and justified?
  2. Benefit to the homeowner. Are residents and pets made safer by action?
  3. Benefit to community. Is the public perception of wildlife positively affected by action?

Additional considerations that help shape decision-making, but are always secondary to the primary goals:

  1. Benefit to education/research. Is there information or a teachable opportunity gained by action?
  2. Benefit to ___insert relocation org here___. Does action help advance the operation and ability to positively affect primary goals?

Ultimately, capturing and relocating snakes must progress one goal above all else: peacefully mitigate immediate wildlife conflict while providing long-term, sustainable alternatives. Snake relocation is the quick fix, snake fencing, education, research, and ongoing outreach are the long game; the latter category should perpetually attempt to put the former out of business.

These Coachwhips were requested to be removed by a homeowner, though they are harmless and eaters of rattlesnakes, and that is OK.

Why would a homeowner want to get rid of a beneficial snake, like a Kingsnake or Gophersnake?

Desert-savvy homeowners know that there is no better friend to have in the backyard than these large, harmless snakes. They are amazing, free pest control, in the very least. Some, like Kingsnakes and Coachwhips, even eat rattlesnakes (not Gophersnakes, contrary to popular belief, but that’s a subject for a different article). They don’t hurt anyone, including kids and dogs, as they quietly patrol the neighborhood looking to take out rodents wherever they find them.

The only downside? Simply, some people just do not like snakes. That dislike is most often synonymous with fear. Regardless of the type, aside from any knowledge, a deep cultural-phobia persists for many (I covered much of this in an earlier article about pre-summer mental preparation for the snake-phobic along with some resources if you’re firmly in the “hate snakes” crowd.)

Fear of snakes runs deep – at an individual basis and as part of our culture – and it is not easily fixed. From the outside (as occasional criticism from armchair conservationists seems to indicate) it may seem like all that’s needed to convince someone that the Gophersnake in the backyard is nothing to worry about are some quick facts. The reality is much more complicated.

We do our best to educate and provide as many alternatives as possible. We make sure that people know that the snake in their yard is harmless and will leave on its own. We also have the experience to know when that knowledge alone isn’t enough. In these instances, the situation is best handled by action. The snake can be safely escorted from the property and is not killed by terrified homeowners, who likewise benefit from the educational experience.

Why do you relocate harmless snakes instead of just educating the homeowners?

Based on the goals detailed in this article, sometimes offering knowledge alone will not create the desired outcome. It is important to understand the motivation of the caller, and be able to approach the situation regardless of the most ideal scenario.

In a perfect world, someone calling a snake removal group, who learns that the Gophersnake they’re looking at is harmless and will leave on its own, will thank the hotline operator and ignore the snake. This does happen quite often, but not always.

Fear of snakes is often not a purely logical process. While lack of knowledge and experience is a large component of fear, why and how it affects a person is not so simple that it can be eliminated by throwing interesting facts at it.

Apathy is another foe of education-only conflict mitigation tactics. Many people simply do not care or want to think about the snake in their yard – they just want it gone. It doesn’t mean they’re bad, ignorant, etc. … most people just don’t think all that much about snakes. That’s an odd expectation to have as a prerequisite prior to helping them. New information will not be valued by a person who doesn’t value non-essential knowledge, and that’s ok.

A person with a deep fear of snakes is not likely to be positively affected by learning that the Kingsnake on the patio is harmless and eats rattlesnakes. “I know, but I have kids.”

The guy that just moved into a home on a golf course and doesn’t know who David Attenborough is doesn’t care how cool the Nightsnake in his kitchen is. “It eats scorpions? Cool story bro. I’m killing it.”

We have learned the hard way what happens when idealism supercedes reasonable action. – dead snakes. We get emails and texts every day of decapitated and hacked-up snakes, many of which were well known to be entirely harmless.

Tasked with resolving the conflict between a snake and a person, it is not useful or reasonable to abandon both when the scenario is not convenient.

Conservation outreach is not a job best performed by robots.

For people who enjoy snakes, it can be difficult for us to empathize and act appropriately in these situations. Those who choose to work with the public need to not forget that “the public” is made of people. They should remember that, outside of nature centers and Facebook groups where people intentionally seek and value information, is everyone else.

Do you have anxiety when you fly? Here are reports and data that show how amazingly safe flying is, reading the entirety of which will not make a dent in how a nervous flyer feels on the runway. If this situation doesn’t apply to you, replace flying with whichever fear you have. Does anything change? Would it still change if you perhaps thought differently or had a different personality?

If you’re the type that creates or shares memes and information online to educate people about snakes (or anything, really), consider who you are talking to and why they should care before you do. If you routinely say “herp” or find yourself annoyed when someone mixes up venomous and poisonous, this article is for you. Don’t forget that educating people involves, primarily: people.

Sidenote: the elephant in the room.

Yes, we make money from it. We do try our best to provide as many free services as possible to teach people what these harmless snakes are and that they can just be ignored, but if the situation requires one of our team to spend time on-site, there’s a fee involved to cover our time. That can be seen as an issue for some, but it allows us as an organization to exist and be staffed by experienced professionals with more than a passing interest. That potential for ethical conflict is understood and great care is taken to make sure that whenever possible, these situations can be resolved by information alone. There’s always going to be the “all business is evil; all profit is corrupt” sect of young conservationists who dislike what we do, and that is ok.

Bird Netting Sucks

This is something we have to do many times each year, and it’s never fun for anyone. This Western Diamondback Rattlesnake was found by a home owner in the East Valley sitting in one spot, and reportedly not moving for a few days. Brandon went out to check it out, and here’s what he found: a snake tangled in bird netting, still alive, but doomed without intervention.

Rattlesnake stuck in bird netting – this stuff kills!

 

Brandon brought it to our facility in North Phoenix, net and all, for the careful and dangerous work of getting it cut out of the net. While being cut out of the rest of the fence, the snake got further tangled. The nylon netting was cutting into the body skin, and all around the head, mouth, and neck.

Ouch 🙁

 

The snake was obviously stressed, striking at any opportunity, which is more than understandable. Normally, these jobs are difficult, but are a standard process: remove the netting in layers while controlling the head by either pinning it down, or even better, using a tube. The tube is the clear plastic device seen below, which can be used to safely manipulate rattlesnakes without needing to actually touch the pointy end.

The ‘fun’ part

This one, however, was not so easy. The netting was all around the head, even in its mouth at this point, to the tube was not much more than a shield. Lot’s of careful scissor snips and position changes later, most of the body was free. Removing the final strands from the mouth itself, however is the most difficult and dangerous part. Using the tube, hook, and another long tool not pictured here, the final strands were cut away until the snake was able to free itself.

Free! The snake has no outward damage and is not bleeding, so left with Brandon to go back and be released to another part of it’s probable home range in the East Valley. Hopefully this is the last bird netting this little guy will ever see. I can’t imagine that will be the same for us this season.

It’s not just snakes and us that hate this stuff, too. Over the years we have seen many dead animals tangled in them, each slowly starving or dying of exposure in the desert sun. Birds, big and small, rabbits, and more lizards than I can count. The dead animals caught in the nets may also attract other animals that are looking for an easy meal, who are then also caught in the net and die an agonizing death. If you use bird netting or know someone who does, please be aware of the often unseen danger that these pose to the wildlife, and evaluate if this is the best and ethical way to keep birds out of the garden.

 

 

 

Help Us Stop a House Bill to Allow The Shooting of Snakes Within City Limits: HB 2022

Update: Here’s a petition from Advocates for Snake Preservation.
https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/we-dont-need-shooting-in-our-neighborhoods-stop-hb2022

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Recently, a bill has been introduced that would allow people to shoot guns within city limits, as long as they are firing in the direction of a snake or rodent. Personally, I don’t feel comfortable with people in apartment complexes, in populated areas, near schools and shopping areas, and right next door firing guns in random directions. There’s also the dangerous precedent that this sets for our native wildlife; to be treated as pests rather than something to be respected.

If you’d like to help, email members of the committee, or state Representative Jay Lawrence to let them know your concerns.

Here is the relevant information.

RE: House Bill 2022
AMENDING SECTION 13‑3107, ARIZONA REVISED STATUTES; RELATING TO FIREARMS.

[FULL TEXT] HTTPS://LEGISCAN.COM/…/…/ARIZONA-2017-HB2022-INTRODUCED.HTML

Rep. Jay Lawrence
602-926-3095
jlawrence@azleg.gov

http://ld23jaylawrence.com
https://twitter.com/jlawrenceLD23
https://www.facebook.com/JayLawrenceforHouse/

Committee (email or call these people):

Paul Boyer
PBOYER@azleg.gov
602-926-4173

Kirsten Engel
KENGEL@azleg.gov
602-926-5178

Eddie Farnsworth
EFARNSWORTH@azleg.gov
602-926-5735

Mark Finchem
MFINCHEM@azleg.gov
602-926-3122

Sally Ann Gonzales
SGONZALES@azleg.gov
602-926-3278

Daniel Hernandez
DHERNANDEZ@azleg.gov
602-926-4840

Anthony T. Kern
AKERN@azleg.gov
602-926-3102

David Stringer
DSTRINGER@azleg.gov
602-926-4838

Maria Syms
MSYMS@azleg.gov
602-926-4860

While form letters can be useful, individual letters and arguments are better. Form letters are often treated as one letter and accepted/dismissed as one. We have a lot of experienced, knowledgeable people interested in this, so please take time to email, tweet, or FB Rep. Lawrence on this issue.

For an example of the argument, here is my letter to the committee:

Here is what I am sending. If anyone wants to use or add to any argument made here, please do.

Dear Mr. Lawrence,

I am writing in regards to House Bill 2022: Creating an exception to statute 13-3107, Unlawful discharge of firearms, to allow discharge of firearms within municipality limits with the purpose of eliminating rattlesnakes or rodents.

I am the owner of Rattlesnake Solutions, a local rattlesnake education and conservation group. My team are frequent visitors of Scottsdale and serve your constituents on a daily basis. I am also an amateur herpetologist with specialization in local rattlesnake species, and a regular educational speaker at regional parks and wildlife-oriented organizations. I have 15 years of daily experience with the conflict that exists between our growing urban areas and native wildlife. I believe my knowledge in this area can be helpful to you when considering HB2022.

First, I very well understand the fear that some people feel about snakes. It is deeply rooted in our culture. To many, including, I believe, your constituent whose experience has fueled the creation of HB2022, this may seem like a common sense issue. However, the facts do not justify our fear or the perceived danger that snakes pose. In fact, the promotion of irresponsible wildlife handling methods actually creates new threats, and exacerbates existing ones.

Based on my professional experience, it is my estimation is that HB2022 will actually result in an increase of venomous bites within urban areas, and create the possibility for additional injury in the form of firearm-related accidents.

Please consider the following:

Each year in the United States, an estimated 7,000-8,000 people per year are bitten by venomous snakes, resulting in 8 to 15 deaths. The bite victims, as well, are often intentionally handling the snakes, herpetologists and professional handlers, and others who are not accidental bite victims. It is estimated that, of bite victims in Arizona, roughly 1/3 are attempting to kill, capture, or harass the snake. Bites managed by the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center show 50% to 70% of bites happen to individuals in performing these actions.

This leaves bite victims that are accidentally bitten by snakes that are not seen, or not seen until after the bite has occurred. This means that individuals who would take action themselves under the exception offered by HB2022 will intentionally place themselves into the highest bracket of bite victims. Rattlesnakes are quite capable of delivering a venomous bite even after being shot, and if the numbers show anything, it is that subsequent handling and photo opportunities are irresistible.

In Arizona, there are numerous methods to safely handle the removal of snakes. In Scottsdale, in particular, this service is performed free-of-charge by the Fire Department, in addition to non-profit organizations such as the Arizona Herpetological Association and Phoenix Herpetological Society. Additionally, dozens more entities exist to service your constituents in the event that wildlife needs to be removed. With all of these options available across the state, there is no added safety to gain from allowing a homeowner to shoot a snake. HB2022 encourages behavior that any herpetological professional, emergency response, or venomous snake specialist would believe to be reckless and dangerous. If someone sees a snake, and chooses to keep their distance rather than approach it (armed or otherwise), all danger is negated. Rattlesnake bites are not a significant threat to Arizonans living in areas potentially affected by HB2022.

There is also the added danger of additional firearm discharge in populated areas. Does HB2022 consider densely populated areas of the city, apartment and condo complexes, and areas near schools? There is also consideration for law enforcement, and how to handle the introduction of legal gunfire in highly populated areas, fired with only the requirement that it be directed towards an animal. It is my hope that the concerns of the community has been considered in the creation of HB2022.

I know that, personally, I would have great concerns if my own neighbors were firing at rats in their backyard, rat-shot or otherwise. HB2022 must assume a common responsibility and understanding of firearm safety, which seems at odds with the purpose of 13-3107. I personally do not trust that every gun owner within city limits possess the level of safety awareness to prevent accidental gunfire mishaps. This is a high price to pay for what is essentially a feel-good action for some individuals who choose to ignore safer options.

My intention is not to convince anyone of the value of our native wildlife, especially in areas of urban conflict. I realize that these are not animals appreciated by many; it’s expected, and this nature of this irrational fear needs to be considered. It is my personal opinion that personal responsibility is an important factor here, being the choice for many to create homes within desert habitats and maintain naturalistic landscaping. This is a choice made by many of your constituents, and all the beauty come caveats of being a good citizen and neighbor.

If I or my organization can provide any information or aid on this matter to your staff or constituency, please assume you will have whatever help is needed. Likewise, I have a desire uphold the safety of Arizonans; HB2022 will not acheive that goal.

I will end with 2 links. One is an unfortunate incident where a child was killed by a police officer attempting to kill a (harmless) snake with a gun. The second is the complete list of venomous snake related deaths in the United States. Please take note of the number from Arizona who would have been helped by HB2022 in the last 20 years.

http://www.foxnews.com/…/oklahoma-police-kill-5-year-old-bo…

https://en.wikipedia.org/…/List_of_fatal_snake_bites_in_the…

Respectfully,

Bryan Hughes
480-694-3020