January 16th, 2021

Co-existing with Prairie rattlesnakes

By Submitted Article on May 29, 2020.

Photo by Raymond Huel - a group of rattlesnakes sun themselves after emerging from their den in Cottonwood Park on a early spring day, as a garter snake makes its way over the four much larger rattlers.

Respect them but don’t fear them, says snake expert

Ken Moore

The year 2020 is vastly different for almost all of us with the novel coronavirus in our midst. However, Mother Nature continues her year unabated as migrating birds flock back to southern Alberta, does give birth to fawns, and the grasses renew their green mantle. But these are not the only signs of our annual cycle. Prairie rattlesnakes are also part of the scene.

Those persons who wish to get out of the house and get some exercise may wish to take a hike in the coulees. That’s a great idea … great scenery, good exercise and something a person can do on their own or with a like-minded cohort member. But when out in the coulees, particularly the coulees of west Lethbridge, be particularly vigilant of staying on the designated trails.

Lethbridge is home to a healthy population of rattlesnakes. No one knows for sure how many there are. A study was done over a decade ago and it was estimated at the time that between 200 and 400 Prairie rattlesnakes may call Lethbridge home. Each year snakes are born and snakes die. It’s not known if there are greater or fewer snakes alive today than there were a decade ago. Habitat is being lost. Residential areas are being constructed on historic rattlesnake hunting grounds. And with a loss of hunting grounds there will undoubtedly be some loss of snakes due to the loss of prey from that area. And it seems that more snakes are lost each year to vehicular traffic. But it’s not known if births could make up for these losses.

What is known is that Prairie rattlesnakes are notoriously slow at reproducing. Males may be able to mate at three years of age, but it may be five, six or even seven years of age before a female is able to reproduce. And females are only able to birth every second year at the most, and sometimes only every third year. Females have to be fat before they can become pregnant. They may go an entire year between feedings: from September of the year they become pregnant until the following September, or August if she’s lucky. Most births are in August, and she won’t eat from the time she enters her den in the fall until she gives birth the following summer (or fall, if the weather is bad.)

A rhumba (group of baby rattlesnakes) may be anywhere from one to a dozen in size depending upon a number of factors. But the average number of births to a female who has given birth before is probably about nine or 10. Of these neonates (babies) only about two or three can be expected to see the following spring. They have lots of predators, especially birds of prey.

Rattlesnakes are good for the environment. Their main prey are rodents, mainly mice. But they’ll also eat Richardson’s ground squirrels (gophers) and even ground-dwelling birds.

If you find them in your yard, they’re there because they are trying to fulfil one of their basic needs: food (mice), water, shelter or possibly a mate, or your residence is just on their path from where they were to where they believe one of their needs may be met. To discourage snakes from wanting to be on your property, eliminate those things which may entice them there in the first place. Don’t feed birds from May through to October. Birds throw seeds. Seeds attract mice. Mice attract snakes. If you’re leaving a dish of water outside for your dog or cat, consider leaving a separate water dish outside your property and keep it filled. If we are in a drought, a snake may come into your yard for a drink. If there’s a drink outside already, the snake won’t need to enter. Bushes, decks and piles of things such as wood can provide shade which snakes need on hot summer days.

If you are concerned about snakes in your yard, snake-proof your property. Find someone who can install a proper fence: a fence using quarter-inch mesh from below ground level to about 30 inches above ground with proper and adequate fencing at and around gates.

Why don’t we just eliminate rattlesnakes altogether and live life without having to worry about them? Because, for one thing, all snakes are protected in Alberta. The Wildlife Act and Wildlife Regulations protect all snakes and all snake dens. Snakes are classified as a non-game animal. This means that there’s no open season on them. No open season means there’s no hunting them. No hunting means a lot of things, not just taking a gun and shooting them.

To hunt means any of the following: to shoot at, harass, or worry, or chase, pursue, follow after, search for, flush, stalk, lie in wait for, capture or wilfully injure or kill, or attempt to capture, injure or kill, or assist another person in any of the above. As well, you can’t destroy or alter any den used by a snake at any time of the year. Rattlesnakes and all snakes were here before we were. We’re invading their territory. You can’t harm them on public property or private property, not even your own property. If you have a snake in your yard call the Lethbridge Rattlesnake Hotline at 403-332-6806 and someone will come over and pick it up without any harm to the snake.

Most of the rattlesnakes found in Lethbridge are found in or near the coulees of west Lethbridge but that doesn’t mean that’s the only place they are. It’s possible that there is at least one and possibly more dens along the coulees on the east side of the river. None has been found as of yet, but that doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist. Rattlesnakes are found each year on the east side of the Oldman River. If you’re hiking in Six Mile Coulee, or the Country Club, or the dog run near Botterill Bottom Park, be aware that they could be around. The same can be said for those in Pavan Park or other areas in north Lethbridge near the coulees. The further away from the coulees you are the less likely you are to encounter a snake of any kind.

Rattlesnakes are an integral part of our environment. They eat millions of rodents and help control disease. They are not malicious and only strike out to protect themselves, and usually they warn you if you get too close. Don’t be afraid of them, but please respect them and leave them alone. They’re amazing animals which help us a lot.

Ken Moore is a Lethbridge naturalist who specializes in snakes.

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