SPORTS-OTD-MINNESOTA-RATTLESNAKES-DMT

"The chance of seeing a rattlesnake is slim," Jaime Edwards said, who supervises the Whitewater Management Area for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "More people have more encounters with bee stings, dog bites and spider bites than negative encounters with rattlesnakes."

MINNEAPOLIS — They live deep in the ground most of the year until the summer heat draws them out onto the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.

But this year, the timber rattlesnake has become the talk of Winona in southeastern Minnesota. Wildlife experts are now having to answer the question: “What’s up with all the rattlesnakes?”

People like Jaime Edwards, who supervises the Whitewater Management Area for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“We’ve had a pretty significant increase in rattlesnake calls this summer compared to previous years,” said a post on the Winona County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page.

Sheriff Ron Ganrude said Friday that he wasn’t familiar with the post, but added that he knows of three calls about snakes to his department recently.

Winona police have received at least 15 reports of snake sightings, Edwards said. Only about half of those turned out to be rattlesnakes.

“That’s about average for the year,” she said. But several of the reports came from one Winona neighborhood — the Wincrest area, she said.

She and Stephen Winter, a biologist and a member of a volunteer squad of experts police call when snakes are sighted, are surprised by the reaction over what is an annual affair in bluff country. “It’s been blown out of proportion,” Winter said.

The thick-bodied, fanged rattlesnake with its distinctive triangular head spends most of the year in its winter den. Southeastern Minnesota is in the northern limits of the coldblooded reptile’s range.

“When things get hot in the summer, that’s when they really move around,” Winter said. “They’re looking for food and they’re looking for mating opportunities.”

Sometimes, it gets too hot for them.

“They have to move off the bluff,” Edwards said. “The temps on the bluffs can be well over 100 degrees.”

Trouble is, they sometimes move closer to humans. The snakes find their way into people’s yards, where birdfeeders also draw chipmunks and mice — a nice meal for a rattler.

“If you build your house on a bluff, all the critters that live on the bluff are going to visit your yard, whether they’re deer or snakes,” Edwards said.

Many longtime residents of the area have made peace with the timber rattlesnake, content to coexist. Others, not so much.

“I think some of the movies have made snakes out to be vicious and that they’ll come after you and attack,” Edwards said. “People then are afraid of snakes and they overreact.”

She understands, even though she’s perfectly OK with snakes. It’s spiders with their “creepy legs” that make her shudder.

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“The chance of seeing a rattlesnake is slim,” Edwards said. “More people have more encounters with bee stings, dog bites and spider bites than negative encounters with rattlesnakes.”

Few humans have been bitten by venomous rattlesnakes in Minnesota, Edwards said. She has heard of two cases in 2011.

And the last recorded death, she said, was in 1890. “Back then they didn’t have the same medical care that we do,” she said.

The timber rattlesnake, which once was hunted for bounties, has been listed as a threatened species in Minnesota since 1996.

Oftentimes, people mistake other snakes for the timber rattler. Snakes like the fox, bull, milk and hognose are bigger snakes and can shake their tails to intimidate those they encounter, trying to convince the unsuspecting that they’re rattlesnakes, Edwards said.

Winter, who has responded to five snake calls this year, contends that there are far more aggressive snakes than the more docile timber rattler, which just wants to be left alone.

When he answers a call regarding a rattlesnake, his job is to find it and move it.

“The idea is to keep people safe and snakes alive,” Winter said.

“Timber rattlesnakes and people can coexist,” he said. “The snakes are there. A lot of people are working in their yards and they don’t know there’s a snake under the bush. I think they’re doing a really good job of laying low and staying out of trouble.”

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