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CHRIS HOWEY

Photo: N/A, License: N/A

JOHN CUMMINGS

For a person who is not fond of snakes, the idea of a Rattlesnake Roundup is terrifying.

But Noxen Fire Company has embraced its indigenous inhabitants and loves to put them on display.

The yearly fireman’s carnival is highlighted once again by the rattlers, and the public who come to see what all the noise is about.

Waterways Conservation Officer John Cummings of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission said that timber rattlesnakes, one of three venomous snakes found in Pennsylvania, are native to the Noxen area, and to the northeast region of the state as a whole.

“Noxen is really the ‘perfect storm’ for the rattlesnakes,” Cummings explained. “The snakes are there, the interest is there by people who are curious and respectful of the snakes, and enjoy them, too. Also the fire company is a big supporter, and benefits from the event to do its job. Everyone wins.”

“There are decent den sites in the game lands. State Game Lands 57, on the mountain tops by the windmills, are great spots,” he continued.

The timber rattlesnake is a large heavy-bodied snake in the pit viper family that inhabits the mountainous regions of Pennsylvania. The dens often consist of rocky crevices or slopes that are near forested openings. Rattlesnakes’ camouflage colors let them blend into the forest floors perfectly.

Dr. Chris Howey, assistant professor in the biology department at the University of Scranton who conducted his post-doctoral research at Penn State, said, “Snakes are awesome at adapting to habitats. They prefer sunny areas, usually the south side of mountains. But they also enjoy the shaded woodlands. The timber rattlesnake can lower its body temperature, conserving its energy.”

Rocks are not essential to the dens, as rattlers can also take shelter in fallen logs, leaf litter, wood piles or other temporary outdoor man- made shelters that can serve as ambush sites for rodents.

The snake will eventually return to its natural den when it is done foraging.

According to Noxen history, the town settlers took advantage of the town’s plentiful supply of trees, with the Trexler & Turrel Lumber Company supporting an extensive tannery on land still used as the carnival grounds.

The mountains yielded many different types of trees, affording the impeccable environment for timber rattlers.

“As far as I know,” said Howey, “the roundup in Noxen started back in the 1970s. It came down to a group of individuals who were interested in the snakes and wanted to spread information about them.”

“There has been some habitat manipulation by humans- mostly due to development. But with awareness or care, we can create less conflict between humans and the snakes,” offered Cummings.

The numbers of snakes have dwindled, but in 2016 the timber rattlesnake was no longer considered a candidate for protected species in Pennsylvania.

“If they were endangered, we wouldn’t allow it to be hunted,” explained Cummings.

“For terrestrial species like the rattlesnake, the numbers have gone down due to the disruption of den sites. It could be something as simple as when you are out hunting, and turn a rock over to look for a snake. Whether or not you find one, put the rock back and leave the area as undisturbed as you can after your hunt,” he said.

When development occurred by Bald Mountain in Lackawanna County, the back slope of what is now the Railriders’ stadium, was littered with rattlers.

“Limiting development on mountainsides would be the number one way to protect the species. We will continue to monitor sites and adjust accordingly,” acknowledged Cummings.

As for the Roundup in Noxen, held over Father’s Day weekend this year, WCO Cummings says the safety of participants, as well as the snakes, all comes down to two things.

Common sense and respect.

“If an individual encounters a rattlesnake, they need to respect them and use the right tools, the right technique. If done correctly, the snakes are not that hazardous or that dangerous. Often they can be handled without incident, said Cummings.

Howey said, “If you encounter a timber snake in the woods, let it be. It is mostly going to sit there and hope you don’t see them. Just keep your distance, and move on.”

“If you see one near your home or woodpile, try to get something with a long handle and you can typically coax it to leave. Call the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources or PFBC, they have trained people to relocate snakes,” explained Howey.

Cummings added, “It is rare to be bitten by a rattlesnake, it is usually through something a person does to provoke the snake. The person might be showing off, or impaired by drinking or drugs, but it is almost always because of the human. The physical principles of the snake are limited.”

“There are between 5,000 and 8,000 rattlesnake bites throughout the United States each year. Mostly, these bites occur when people are trying to kill the snake, and it is defending itself,” said Howey.

Wearing impervious material and high boots when out in the high brush also minimizes rattlesnake bites. A camouflaged rattler might not be seen while out hiking or fishing.

“The best tool is your own brain,” Cummings said quite matter of factly. “If you are not an expert at handling snakes, go with someone who is, they can mentor you.”

On the PFBC website, it is stated that timber rattlesnakes are rarely aggressive and will typically retreat or hide under cover when threatened. The rattling in snakes evolved in response to the presence of large herbivores such as elk and buffalo, to avoid being trampled and to issue a warning to avoid confrontation.

As for safety with snakes in Noxen, Cummings explained that a person involved in the hunting and presentation is required to get a permit from the PFBC. That permit entitles him or her to actively hunt, and allows possession one snake per year.

The PFBC offers venomous snake-hunting permits for a fee, and the applicant must purchase a Pennsylvania fishing license first.

The regulations on obtaining snakes are online at the PFBC website and also state that the hunter must file an annual report with the agency.

PFBC regulations do allow for anyone, with or without a license, to kill a venomous snake ‘in defense of life or limb’ at any time. Regulations do stress, however, that simply encountering a rattler or copperhead in the wild or where they are not wanted generally does not qualify as a situation requiring ‘defense of life or limb’ and spotting one on a roadway nearly never qualifies.

Dr. Howey offered, “In much of the 1900s, roundups were about killing all of the snakes. Presently here in Pennsylvania, we have shifted to more of a conservation aspect. We teach the truths and dispel myths.”

“In the old days it didn’t matter,” Cummings said. “Now once the snakes are handled and entered they are tagged and measured for scientific purposes. Sometimes the rattles are painted for future information. Then they are required to be returned to the den or area they were caught in. This is a non-consumptive event, a ‘catch and release’ if you will.”

Howey added, “These new roundups tell us great things. We radio track rattlesnakes to be able to see their habitats. It really is a great service to people like me. The information and education lets people know we want the snakes in our woods.”

“They also keep the small mammal population in check. Karen Lips of University of Maryland did a study showing that the timber rattlesnake indirectly benefits humans by keeping Lyme Disease in check.”

The results of Lips’ study show that each timber rattler removed 2,500-4,500 ticks from the study site each year.

As for those not familiar, and those who are not too fond of rattlesnakes, WCO Cummings says this is the perfect event to get your feet wet.

“The snakes are contained and handled in cordoned-off areas. There is no safety concern, it is a family-friendly event. Just like any other fire carnival.

This is the type of event that would allow someone not comfortable with the snakes to observe and watch the snakes to be handled safely with no cause for alarm,” said Cummings.

For the more ambitious and inquisitive, WCO Cummings explained that there might be something called tubing at the Roundup. “We use it to educate kids at our children’s programs. There is a clear tube that the snake is put into head first. Then closed at the end. The snake cannot turn around in the tube, but you can see it. The back end is available to touch the rattles, or the skin, while the snake is tubed.”

Howey agreed, remarking about the opportunities to see different types of snakes, both venomous and nonvenomous. “The colors and markings are sensational, you’ll see some really cool things.”

He continued, “The rattlesnakes have crazy personalities, they are really curious animals. They never want to pick a fight. We seem to have an innate fear of snakes in general, but the more we learn, the less we fear.”

IF YOU GO
Annual Rattlesnake Round-Up gets underway at Noxen Fire Carnival grounds off Stull Road, Noxen. Food, games, rides, entertainment, crafts, and snakes.
Thursday, June 14: Grounds open at 6 p.m. Music by Shelly’s Underground at 7 p.m.
Friday, June 15: Grounds open at 6 p.m. Music by Strawberry Jam at 7 p.m.
Saturday, June 16:  Grounds open at 1 p.m. Snake displays, 1-8 p.m. Parade at 6 p.m. Music by DJ Madman Mike at 1 p.m. and 3rd Degree Reunion at 7 p.m.
Sunday June 17: Grounds open at 1 p.m. Snake displays, 1-6 p.m. Fireworks by Pizza Paul at 10 p.m. Music by Ray Phillips Sight & Sound at 1 p.m. and Iron Cowboy at 6 p.m.