RESCUING RATTLERS Long-feared reptile declining in East

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Crouched at the edge of a stony cliff in the mountains of Washington County, William H. "Marty" Martin slipped a bare hand into a crevice between slabs of rock and grabbed a yellow rattlesnake by its tail.

"Got one!" he yelled.

"Marty, you're crazy," said Scott Smith, biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, as he climbed the boulders to get a closer look at the squirming snake, only a few days old, less than a foot long and not-yet dangerous.

Drenched in sweat in the heat and humidity of a late August morning in Western Maryland, Mr. Martin had found what he was looking for: a litter of timber rattlers.

They were among several rattlers and copperheads -- Maryland's only native poisonous snakes -- that Mr. Martin would uncover from flat rocks used as birthing places along the steep, rugged mountainside.

Mr. Martin, a pencil-thin, bearded biologist from Harper's Ferry, W.Va., has been tracking Appalachian rattlers for 30 years. This day's expedition was for Maryland DNR officials to find out how many timber rattlesnakes are left in the state.

Mr. Martin has undertaken studies for Pennsylvania and West Virginia, as well.

Maryland officials will use the results of the two-year survey to determine whether the often-maligned and misunderstood reptiles need more protection.

The poisonous snakes already are classified as a nongame species, which means they can't be killed or collected legally without a state permit.

"Everything has its place," said Mr. Martin, noting that rattlers help control the mouse, rat and chipmunk populations.

"There was a time when scientists identified animals as good or bad to man. We don't look at things like that anymore. More people are understanding that we have to be concerned about all animals."

The timber rattler is found primarily in the state's four western counties -- Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett. A few are believed to live near the Pretty Boy Reservoir in northern Baltimore County.

Maryland officials are not the only ones concerned about the rattler.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been petitioned by environmental groups to list populations in New England as endangered.

"These snakes have been extirpated in Maine and Rhode Island," Mr. Martin said.

Until it hired Mr. Martin, Maryland had never conducted an extensive study of the timber rattlesnake, said Glenn Therres, supervisor of nongame and urban wildlife program for DNR's Wildlife Division. The study is paid for by income tax check-off dollars through the Chesapeake and Endangered Species Fund, said.

"The timber rattlesnake identifies what is left of the wilderness," Mr. Therres said. "It's more of a wilderness species than the eagle or the black bear."

Population decimated

Here and elsewhere, the timber rattlesnake population has been decimated by hunters who kill for thrill or trophy, and by dealers in a thriving pet trade.

Snake hunters have been known to wipe out entire local populations and destroy ancestral dens, where snakes hibernate during the winter, Mr. Smith said.

Two summers ago, DNR officials found a den in Garrett County that hunters had destroyed by pouring gasoline among the rock crevices and burning the snakes out.

"People kill snakes no matter what kind they are," Mr. Smith said. "People go out and kill them for fun. I think our fear is learned. Other societies are more respectful of snakes."

The results are particularly damaging when pregnant females are destroyed. Rattlers reproduce slowly. Females don't produce young until their seventh or eighth year and give live birth only every three years. Most members of the litter will die from starvation or by freezing before their first spring.

As development encroaches on the state's forested mountains, encounters with humans will increase, DNR officials said. Although snakes make their dens and give birth in rocky-mountain terrain, both males and nonpregnant females travel one or two miles to mate.

"Twenty to 30 years ago, if you saw a rattlesnake and didn't kill it, you were considered criminally negligent," Mr. Martin said. "Even now, most encounters between people and snakes end up being fatal." To the snake, that is.

That was the case when John and Lisa Fishman, who live in Adamstown, near Sugarloaf Mountain in Frederick County, found 4-foot timber rattler in their suburban back yard last month. A neighbor and some tree cutters killed it.

"Shocked is a good word," said Mrs. Fishman of the encounter. "We've had black snakes and king snakes, but never rattlesnakes. Kids play in the back yard, but a lot of people aren't worried. They just tell their kids not to pick up anything that looks like a stick."

For the last two years, Mr. Martin, a former National Park Service naturalist who began studying rattlers as a hobby, has hiked the state's rocky and secluded woodlands looking for signs -- such as skins the snakes have shed -- of breeding sites and dens.

He said Western Maryland has about 75 known dens and, based on reported sightings of rattlers, he estimates that another 25 to 50 dens are still to be located.

About 30 snakes live in a typical den, he said.

"We are uncertain of the population, but we do know that we have a low population," Mr. Martin said.

Although Mr. Martin doesn't know what the numbers were historically, he believes that Maryland's snake population has declined significantly, based on the population of dens in remote areas of other states. A Garrett County hunter, he pointed out, wrote in his memoirs that he killed a den of 81 snakes there in the mid-1850s.

On this day in 1993, the hot, steamy weather was not ideal for finding snakes sunning on rocks or moving about. Mr. Martin was forced to use a poker to bring them out from crannies and crevices in the rocks, where they crawled to keep cool. He uncovered a few pregnant females, nearly ready to give birth.

The average litter in the Mid-Atlantic region is eight, although litters can vary from two to 18.

They live in their den from late September until early May. The snakes, which have an average life span of 15 years, are generally golden brown, but their color varies.

In the cool mountains of Garrett County, for example, many snakes tend to be darker, which allows them to absorb heat better. Mature timber rattlers range in length from 30 to 50 inches. Only after Mr. Martin removed the snakes from their hiding places on this August day did they rattle or buzz.

'Unaggressive snakes'

Despite a reputation that might indicate otherwise, timber rattlers are not troublemakers.

It's rare for hikers or outdoor enthusiasts to be bitten, Mr. Smith said. In all his years of searching them out, Mr. Martin said, he has never been bitten.

Although the timber rattler's bite can be life-threatening, few deaths have been attributed to the venom, Mr. Martin said.

"They are extremely unaggressive snakes," Mr. Smith said.

If officials add the timber rattlesnake to the state's endangered species list, its habitat would be further protected.

DNR officials are putting up signs in likely rattlesnake areas that caution the public to "observe [the snakes] with respect at a distance."

The $27,000 Maryland survey is to be completed this fall.

DNR officials will review Mr. Martin's recommendations and determine what action should be taken, Mr. Smith said.

Educating the public is important, no matter what the outcome.

DNR officials now travel the state to present programs on timber rattlers. "We've done a great job selling brown-furred and brown-eyed animals and birds to the public," Mr. Smith said. "We haven't done the same with reptiles.

SEE A RATTLER?

State natural resources officials would like anyone who sees a timber rattlesnake to report its location. Call (410) 827-8612 or write DNR, P.O. Box 68, Wye Mills, Md. 21679.

Researcher William H. Martin warns anyone against handling timber rattlesnakes.

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