Despite Conservation Success, Timber Rattlesnake Still Needs Protection, Biologist Says
Dr. William Brown, who has been studying the Timber Rattlesnakes of the Lake George forests for thirty five years, also helped persuade New York State to protect the animal, which it has since 1983, when it added the Timber Rattlesnake to its list of threatened species.
Over the past three decades, trends that could have led to the extinction of the timber rattlesnake in New York have been stalled, if not halted, says Brown.
“In recent years, the changes in public perception have become more noticeable. People seem to recognize that the Timber Rattlesnake is an important part of a healthy eco-system,” said Brown.
For example, he said, island campers are now more likely to call a Lake George ranger when they discover a rattlesnake and asked that it be removed, rather than killing it.
If people do kill rattlesnakes, said Brown, they will be prosecuted, as two Lake George campers were within the past few years.
And as a threatened species, its habitat is protected throughout New York State when placed at risk by development.
That’s progress. Warren County offered bounties on timber rattlesnakes as late as 1971, a policy that led to the extinction of three local populations, said Brown.
But according to Brown, that progress is now in danger of being reversed.
Some officials within New York State’s Department of Conservation are still advocating the “delisting” of the species, or removing it from the list of threatened species.
“We’ve been told numerous times that until recently, the DEC’s main objective was to remove the animal from the list. Perhaps there are some within the department who feel that that’s necessary to persuade the public that its conservation efforts have been successful,” said Brown.
Brown said he is hopeful that DEC will affirm the importance of protecting the Timber Rattlesnake.
A recent statewide meeting of the Timber Rattlesnake Recovery Team, a committee of biologists and DEC resource managers, unanimously recommended that the DEC not pursue such a delisting course, but strengthen the existing Recovery Plan for the species, Brown said.
“Removing the Timber Rattlesnake from the list of threatened species “would be a disaster,” said Brown. “We’ve worked really hard for thirty years to get the word out that the Timber Rattlesnake is protected and deserves to be protected. Only now, 40 years after outlawing bounties and 30 years after listing the animal as a threatended species, are the populations starting to revive.”
Removing the Timber Rattlesnake from the list of threatened species would expose its habitat to destruction, said Brown.
“The developers would love it; it would make their lives much easier. With increasing development in the Hudson Valley and the Catskills, valuable habitat could be lost. If fracking is approved, that would also be a threat to the rattlesnake habitat,” said Brown.
The animals’ Lake George habitat is largely confined to Forest Preserve lands, where ‘Forever Wild” protections prevent the loss of habitat.
Nevertheless, the Lake George population is still vulnerable, said Brown.
“The females reproduce less frequently than I had predicted in the early 1990s. That’s a major limiting factor in the continued viability of these populations,” said Brown.
Moreover, a fungus that some biologists have compared to the white nose syndrom attacking bats has appeared in skin lesions in Timber Rattlesnakes in New England.
“While we haven’t seen much evidence of it in the Lake George area, it’s still a source of concern,” said Brown. “And it’s possible that the potential for the transmission of disease is enhanced by climate change.”
Brown said he is devoting much of his energies these days to working with other biologists and state officials to make certain that the Timber Rattlesnake remains a protected species.
“Most of us would grant that there has been a strong tradition of sound wildlife management in the State of New York. When considering its future legal status in New York, any suggestion of changing the snake’s listing status reveals a dearth of official understanding of the current precarious position of many populations of Timber Rattlesnakes. This species must remain listed as a threatened species,” said Brown.