Give a snake a break

Missoula is home to Rattlesnake Creek, and now more people are becoming aware that it's also home to a few rattlesnakes.

The Missoula office of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has recently received several calls about rattlesnakes around Missoula.

Some of the callers were obviously concerned, and some have expressed surprise to find rattlesnakes in the area. But southwestern Montana - particularly in the Clark Fork, Bitterroot and lower Flathead river valleys - and the area east of the Continental Divide have always been home to prairie rattlesnakes.

FWP biologist Kristen DuBois said the snakes prefer drier areas, such as low-elevation, open pine forests, grasslands and south-facing rocky slopes. But during hot, dry periods such as Montana is experiencing, they will move into moister river bottom areas.

It’s important to remember that rattlesnakes are helpful in keeping the rodent population down, especially in those years when vole, mouse and ground squirrel populations take off.

As a reporter in Hamilton, I received a call from a retired doctor who had just moved to the state. He’d killed a rattlesnake he’d found on his property and wanted the newspaper to put out an alert.

Other times, when camping on the Missouri River canoe trail, we’ve simply shooed away rattlesnakes that others would have probably killed.

While the first reaction of many is to kill a rattlesnake, it’s not really necessary. Montanans who’ve dealt with snakes know it’s best to leave them be when out hiking or camping.

Rattlesnakes aren’t aggressive and will only curl up and rattle when they feel backed into a corner. Given the chance to escape, they’ll take it.

People and dogs are bitten only when they surprise or provoke a snake.

To avoid that, wear boots or snake guards when hiking and be aware of your surroundings. Keep your dog close, and pull him away if he finds a snake.

Rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal, but all snakebites should receive medical attention. A rattlesnake vaccine is available for dogs from your veterinarian.

More people may see rattlesnakes in future summers as climate change continues to cause Montana to be warmer and drier.

A 2013 University of Missouri study looking at snake predation on birds found that because snakes are cold-blooded, warmer temperatures make the reptiles more active and increase their need for food.

Since Missoula has already experienced temperatures in the 90s and is headed for a predicted weekend high of 102, a more active snake population could explain the recent sightings.

But climate change also threatens rattlesnake survival since snakes have limited ability to shift their location. They can’t evolve fast enough and they can’t move north as temperatures continue to increase. So scientists are predicting they’ll eventually die out.

So give a rattlesnake a chance, and don’t kill it if you don’t have to.

Geographical distribution of the prairie rattlesnake.

Geographical distribution of the prairie rattlesnake.