Don’t get rattled!
Late summer is rattlesnake season: Here’s how to keep safe
ENNIS—As the days get hotter and drier, it’s important to watch the ground while hiking, running, horseback riding and walking dogs. The Madison Valley is home to several species of snakes, including Montana’s only venomous one: the prairie rattlesnake (also known as the western rattlesnake). Rattlesnakes pose a significant threat to recreators if caught unawares, but when precautions or taken, it’s easy to live in harmony with them.
Rattlesnakes prefer open, dry spaces and ponderosa stands in particular, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). Since they like to be in hot and sunny spots, they’ll often gravitate toward south-facing slopes or rocky areas where they can stretch out in the sun.
So, how frequently to people actually get bitten by rattlesnakes in Montana?
The answer: often enough for the Rocky Mountain Poison Center to keep track, but not very many considering the number of people who recreate in rattlesnake country.
The RMPC, which is part of Denver Health, oversees poison and venom exposure for Montana, Nevada, Colorado and Hawai’i, and reports that Montana has had 153 reported rattlesnake bites since 2008. Of those reports, there have been zero deaths.
“Bites are extremely rare,” says Katie Geraci of Montana FWP. “Of the thousands of hunters, hikers and backpackers in the state every year, very few get bitten.” The highest bite rate of the last decade occurred in 2014, when a total of 20 bites were reported to the RMPC.
Most of the effects that come from rattlesnake bites are reported as “moderate,” but that doesn’t make them any more pleasant.
Rattlesnake bites are extremely painful, and can induce nausea and vomiting, severe swelling and, in some cases, gangrene at the bite area.
This data from the Rocky Mountain Poison Center shows rattlesnake bites as reported to Montana’s state poison center. Montana sees up to 20 reported bites per year but has not had any reported deaths from the bites. (Courtesy of Shireen Banerji)
Fortunately, the most effective way to keep yourself safe from rattlesnake bites is also the easiest: just leave them alone.
“If you see a rattlesnake, tip your hat, detour around it, and keep going,” writes Montana FWP. They also advise never to try and capture or kill one, as all that will give you is an angry snake and a much higher chance of being bitten.
When recreating in a place where rattlesnakes live, be sure to wear boots that cover your ankles, and don’t go reaching into brushy areas or holes where you can’t see what’s inside.
Snakes tend to aim low or for outstretched extremities like hands and forearms, so stay covered up. They can have a strike distance of up to half their body length, Geraci says, so if you see one, make sure to stay several feet away.
There are also specially-designed chaps and boots that snakes can’t bite through, if you know you’ll be in an area with a high rattlesnake population.
Since snakes nest in secluded places like holes, another area to be aware of is the woodpile.
Snakes often find them appealing as dry, warm nooks and may take up residence between logs or behind piles. Always be careful removing wood and listen for rattles: they’ll always make themselves known if they feel threatened.
One more area to be aware of possible snake presence is heavily irrigated areas, Geraci says. Watering of lawns or fields can draw frogs and small mammals, which in turn draws the snakes that like to feed on them.
For humans, it’s pretty easy to be aware of what to do in snake country, and to identify the places where they’re most likely to be found. Pets, especially outdoor animals like dogs and horses, don’t often have as much luck identifying where rattlers might be, so owners need to be especially vigilant in protecting pets.
Dogs are about 20 times more likely to get bitten by a rattlesnake than humans are, according to a warning from the Billings Animal Family Hospital. They’re also 25 times more likely to die than humans if they do get bitten.
The easiest way to protect your pet is to keep them on a leash when out recreating in rattlesnake country.
Pets like dogs who like to dig holes can accidentally stir up a slumbering snake if they get too nosy while exploring, so keep an eye on them at all times while hiking or camping.
Many vets also offer a vaccination that can give a pet a boost before drastic measures are needed. Often in shot form, these vaccinations protect animals in case of a bite, allowing much more time to get them to a clinic, especially if the snake encounter happened in the backcountry or out of cellphone range.
There are also sometimes agility classes that can help dogs learn to avoid snakes, says Geraci. These can be especially helpful for bird dogs, ensuring that they don’t try to go after a snake they see instead of a downed bird.
If a pet gets bitten while out and about—or at home—call a veterinarian as soon as possible.
The smaller the animal, the more quickly snake venom will enter the bloodstream, so speed is key in getting treatment.
If you get bitten
Those old wives’ tales about snakebite remedies definitely don’t work in a real-life bite situation. Tourniquet? No. Sucking out the venom? Absolutely not. In fact, methods like that can actually make things worse and increase the risk of infection.
“Don’t cut the wound, don’t apply any salves,” Geraci says, as those options can lead to infection and further stress for the victim, which leads to an elevated heart rate and faster pumping of venom through the bloodstream.
“Don’t give them any alcohol, aspirin or other drugs, and don’t put a tourniquet on the wound, because if it’s too tight it could cause gangrene to set in.”
Instead, keep the bitten area still, and put it in a splint if possible. It might be the opposite of a natural reaction, but try to stay as calm as possible; movement and exertion only increase blood flow.
Next, take off anything that may be constricting, like bracelets, rings, sleeves or shoes and socks. When transporting a bite victim back to a vehicle or to a medical facility, move slowly and as calmly as possible.
In the end, the most effective protection against rattlesnakes is awareness and common sense. Travel in groups with a reliable mode of communication in case of emergencies, give snakes their space and keep your eyes and ears open.
“Snakes aren’t actively going to come into a house looking for someone to bite,” says Geraci. “They play an important role in the food chain, helping control the diseases that can be spread by animals like mice and rats. Most people who get bitten are usually trying to capture or kill the snake.”
For the most part, she says, rattlesnakes are shy. They probably want to interact with you about as much as you want to interact with them. So leave them to their business and they’ll likely do their best to do the same.