Vermont Rattlesnakes Battle New Fungus

Jun 10, 2013

The words keep bobbing in front of my eyes like a mantra: "caution: rattlesnake. Caution: rattlesnake."

Credit Jane Lindholm

They’re actually written in big red letters on the side of a white plastic bucket being carried up a wooded hillside by a Vermont Fish and Wildlife staffer directly ahead of me. And there is, in fact, a rattlesnake in that tightly sealed container.

The other words that keep revolving in my mind are the ones Fish and Wildlife biologist Doug Blodgett mentioned as we started our hike. “I’m sure we won’t have any problems,” he said. “But…”

And then he took a laminated card from behind the visor of his truck and pointed out the printed directions to the nearest hospital with rattlesnake anti-venom.

“Pretty much from here on up we potentially could run into a rattlesnake," he says, as we start to trudge up an old logging road into the forest. "You might hear them before they see them. No reason to get excited or freak out. No big deal.”

"Speak for yourself," I’m thinking. But far from being afraid, I’m thrilled! I’ve never seen a rattlesnake in Vermont and here we are in prime rattler territory.

The snake in the bucket is called Old Yeller, Blodgett reveals. “Because it’s a big male yellow snake and we name a lot of the snakes. This one’s old Yeller. We have Secretariat because that one, when it decides to move, really goes out. So, yeah, we give them nicknames.”

Another one is called “Butch Cassidy” because he spends a bunch of time hanging in and around a hole in the wall of a rocky ledge. Old Yeller was caught just a few days earlier and a transmitter that had been implanted inside his body cavity for the last year was removed by a local vet. Now he’s ready to go back to his quiet life in the forest.

The telltale rattle of a rattlesnake. And the paint marking showing it's been tagged and recorded by the Vermont Snake Study.
Credit Jane Lindholm

We’re hiking through land owned by the Nature Conservancy. TNC owns about a thousand acres in this part of Rutland County, protecting one of two populations of timber rattlesnakes still known to exist and reproduce in Vermont. But Blodgett is at pains to keep exactly where we are a bit of a secret.

“There is some interest. There has been some history of illegitimate collection. And it’s an endangered species. The population’s tenuous enough that the loss of a couple of adult females has population significance to us.”

Blodgett is a barrel-chested, fit-looking man with silver hair. In his 31 years with Fish and Wildlife he’s worked on management for practically every major Vermont animal, but he has a special penchant for rattlesnakes, which he says get a totally undeserved bad rap. Until 1971, the state would pay a $1 dollar bounty for a dead rattler. And many people still vehemently hate the species.

“I can tell you that I can’t think of another species that, in my mind, is held in greater contempt than this one. There’s a real cultural bias against all snakes in Vermont but particularly the rattlesnake because it’s venomous. It’s really tough to get off that mindset that they’re not out to get us. Unless you’re a mouse, average Joe doesn’t have a care in the world about it.”

There’s only been one rattlesnake attack in Vermont in the last fifty years and it occurred when a man tried to shoo the snake off a road.  Bad idea, Blodgett says. Rattlesnakes here are typically very reclusive. You could walk within inches of one and never know it because they’re so well-camouflaged and rarely even rattle at passersby. So if you just leave them alone, they probably won’t bother you. And residents of Rutland County can call a volunteer to come and pick up any rattler they find on their property.

***

Leaving the trail, we head into a hardwood forest. Sunlight filters through the leaves, dappling the undergrowth. Recognizing the spot as the same one where the team found Old Yeller three days ago, Blodgett decides to release him. There's plenty of sunlight for basking, and enough leaf cover that the snake can slither away and hide after being released.

Credit Jane Lindholm

Blodgett opens the bucket and lifts Old Yeller out of a thin white fabric bag with special handling stick. The four-foot long snake slides out of the bag and then just sits there. For a long time.

“I suspect what will happen is once we just ease off he’ll take off and go to a different spot. He’s waiting for us to leave because he thinks we don’t see him.” Blodgett laughs.

The snake is beautiful. With yellow, black, and darker yellow markings forming horizontal zig-zag patterns around his thick body. If you look away and then turn back, he disappears into the leaf patterns. Even when you know where to look, Old Yeller is perfectly camouflaged.

Old Yeller is part of a multi-year project being run by the Fish and Wildlife Department, The Nature Conservancy, and the Orianne Society, a national organization that works to save vulnerable snake populations in their native habitats. And make no mistake, timber rattlesnakes are native Vermonters.

Vermont is at the northernmost reach of the rattlesnake’s range. At one point, the snakes may have lived as far north as Chittenden County. For the last quarter century though, they’ve been on Vermont’s endangered species list.

Researchers think there are a couple hundred snakes left here, in two distinct populations in Rutland County. The researchers working on the snake study want to collect data on exactly how many there are and what habitats they prefer. The team has been looking for critical foraging areas and travel corridors that could be the focus of future conservation efforts. And they've found several. As we hike, Blodgett points out swaths of land that cross the hillside, where the snakes frequently slither.

They've identified these areas by tracking snakes like Old Yeller. They capture the snakes and a local vet surgically implant transmitters that give off radio signals and show the scientists where the snakes are going. The transmitters stay in for a year or so. Now, they’re being removed and the data is being assessed. Blodgett knows, for example, that Old Yeller has a range of about 3 miles. Pretty far for Vermont’s timber rattlers. Most males move about two or two and a half miles in search of food and females. The females tend to roam about half that.

Old Yeller hasn't moved a muscle, so we back away to give him some peace.

***

After letting Old Yeller go and attempting, unsuccessfully, to find a couple of other snakes using radio telemetry to locate their transmitters, we trudge down the hill and head off to the other population center seven or eight miles away.

From where we park the truck, it’s another scramble through the woods, around boulders and trees, searching for the highly cryptic snakes. Blodgett explains that he has a different mission at this site.

“We’re monitoring it but we’re not doing any kind of capture or handling at all, just to have a control area. But what I would like to learn from here is whether or not we have the presence of that Snake Fungal Disease because that hasn’t been determined here yet. So I’m very interested to learn whether or not that’s an issue here.”

Snake Fungal Disease is an emerging ailment in the eastern and southwestern United States, with deadly consequences. It affects nearly a dozen species, and it’s been identified in Vermont rattlesnakes. So we’re on the lookout for snakes with lesions on their faces or other telltale signs of the fungus.

Blodgett whistles. A snake sighting. I run over and Blodgett points at what appears to be just some rocks and a clump of bushes. For the life of me, I can't see a snake. Until it rattles.

The snake is black and thick, like a mountain bike tire. It’s the more common coloring of Vermont rattlesnakes. Blodgett thinks the snake is probably female. And pregnant. He gives the snake the once-over from a couple of feet away and decides not to bother it. It looks healthy, so there's no need to disturb it.

Credit Jane Lindholm

Minutes later, Cherie Mosher, who’s been working with The Nature Conservancy on the snake study, finds another one, coiled in a rocky outcropping. She photographs the snake, looking for any signs of the disease, and then, alarmed, she looks up at Doug Blodgett.

“Um, it looks like there’s a potential lesion on its face. It’s just a red blotch, so I don’t even know.”

They decide to capture the snake for a better look. Working quickly, they reach into the rock crevasse with long handled tongs and grab the snake. Then they thread the top half of the snake into a clear plastic tube. With the snake's fangs safely enclosed behind plastic, it's unable to do much damage and gives the researchers a chance to look at its face.

Examining a snake for signs of Snake Fungal Disease
Credit Jane Lindholm

This snake has no rattle. The rattles often break off, so she’s silent as the researchers take a look. They take her measurements, determine definitively that she’s a female but probably not pregnant, and then paint her tail with a paint stick right above her broken rattle, so they’ll be able to identify her if they come upon her again. But they’re unable to determine whether or not this snake has Snake Fungal Disease. Most of the time, Blodgett says, with the lesioned animals, it’s not that subtle. "Some of them are pretty blatantly obvious." Blodgett suspects the disease IS in this population, as it is at the other site. But he has yet to confirm it.

We stand back. This snake isn’t playing the “you can’t see me” game.  Within seconds she’s gone, hidden in some flowering blueberry bushes, silently waiting for us to pass.

The threat of Snake Fungal Disease is a real one. And Blodgett says this could spell major problems for Vermont’s vulnerable population. It’s a pretty debilitating fungus and often lethal. He's worried. "We just don’t know enough about it," he says.

"In Illinois, for example, every Massasauga rattlesnake that’s afflicted with it, it’s 100% lethal. It doesn’t appear to be quite as lethal here, but we’ve also had mortality. So the disease implications alone could overwhelm a lot of other conservation efforts that we might be doing.”

In the meantime, the Vermont Snake Study continues as conservationists and state biologists hope to preserve the critical habitat that might help this native Vermont rattlesnake population survive.

Credit Jane Lindholm