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The timber rattlesnake, a threatened survivor


TRR photo by Charlie Buterbaugh
A gestating female timber rattlesnake with its sulfur yellow patterns coils on a rock ledge early this spring. (Click for larger image)

TUSTEN, NY—Turning over rocks close to rattlesnake dens might sound like proverbial idiocy, but for Randy Stechert, it is an important part of documenting the annual spring emergence of a threatened species.

Whether he found a snake or not, Stechert returned each rock to its original position to maintain the snake shelter.

“Timber rattlesnakes are very particular about their habitat. For example, they seek exact thermal conditions when they hibernate,” Stechert, a New York Department of Conservation (DEC) reptile and amphibian specialist said.

On a humid afternoon on May 2, he took me for a hike along a rock ledge above the Delaware River where we found three timber rattlers, a non-aggressive reptile. Stechert observed that the hard winter delayed this year’s spring emergence, which had just begun.

As a contractor for the DEC, he intends to steer Town of Tusten subdivision developers away from disturbing rattlesnake habitats. The DEC does not intend to hinder development; rather, its purpose is to mitigate further disturbance. Stechert said mitigation might mean restricting logging to late fall and winter months where dens exist.

“We’re attempting to minimize the impact on wildlife and wetlands,” he said.

At an April 21 public hearing before the Tusten Planning Board, Stechert voiced his concern in response to attorney Bob Lander’s attempt to gain preliminary approval of Steve Sklar’s 17-lot subdivision application on Cackletown Road. Stechert called the parcel “a critical habitat.”

He acknowledged that Sklar is sympathetic to the threatened species and wants to work with DEC to minimize disruption.

“But, you can’t expect 17 families to feel the same,” Stechert said. “In the very least, DEC will require mitigation.”

“We’ve mitigated the problem once,” Lander said, referring to the time he, Sklar and Stechert walked the Cackletown Road property and found only one timber rattlesnake. But, Stechert said the walk occurred at the beginning of spring emergence.

Edwin Jackson, Tusten’s Planning Board chairman said, “I am doing research on the issue now and I expect the board members to do the same. I don’t think much thought has been given to it in the past, but it’s a big issue.”

Jackson cited an April 23 article in the Times Herald-Record documenting several development projects that have been held up in Orange County when rattlesnake dens were cited.

Concern is growing in Sullivan County where the mitigating trend is likely to continue.

“Sullivan County has an atypically large number of extirpated dens compared to the rest of the state. The Narrowsburg den by Royal Oaks Estates has seen a 65 percent reduction in the number of rattlesnakes. There are now 35 where there were 100,” Stechert said.

 “Illegal collecting and hunting rattlesnakes used to be the primary threat, but now development is first and road mortality the second,” he said.

“Rattlesnakes control populations of rodents such as mice, voles, red and gray squirrels. In turn, they fall prey to gray owls and red-tailed hawks. Rattlesnakes play a vital role in the biotic energy flow,” he said.

 “We will obey the environmental laws and follow DEC’s process. An environmental impact statement will address the presence of snakes. If they’re there, they will be dealt with appropriately,” Tusten Supervisor Richard Crandall said.

Stechert hopes to see enhanced awareness and respect for the species. He quoted early Wisconsin conservationist Aldo Leopold, who said, “The first step in intelligent tinkering is to keep every cog and wheel.”

In the event that a rattlesnake is found close to a house or building, Stechert asks the community to call 845/252-3517. He will remove the snake safely.

Public hearing for the Cackletown Road subdivision will remain open for the next Tusten Planning Board meeting.

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