It was a mild spring day in 2016, and I was out walking with a friend and my dog, a lab/shepherd mix, on the West Rim Trail above the Rio Grande. As we headed south, making our way along the trail from the rest stop parking area, my friend said, “Look — it’s a rattlesnake.”
I was sure he was mistaken. I had hiked this trail numerous times in all seasons and never seen one. But when I stopped to look, I saw it — all coiled up and less than 2 feet from the trail. We took the dog away before he could notice the snake and stopped a safe distance away to zoom in for a photo. As we approached other hikers, we let them know to watch their step.
In looking at the photo later, I wondered if there were actually two snakes there. Francisco Cortez, Carson National Forest wildlife biologist, examined the photo closely and confirmed my suspicion: There were two prairie rattlesnakes coiled together that day on the mesa.
Although rattlesnakes are present on the lands near Taos, in more than 30 years of hiking here, I’ve seen them up close only twice. In addition to the West Rim sighting, I saw one in the Wild Rivers area of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument; both times the snakes were at elevations of about 7,000 feet.
Rattlesnakes are most often seen in New Mexico between April and September, with the peak month being August, according to the New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center. Some naturalists are proposing that we may see more rattlesnakes than usual this summer due to monsoon rains, which encourage more foliage that snake prey, such as rodents and rabbits, like to eat, according to an Aug. 1 story in the Santa Fe New Mexican.
Jillian Aragon, public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Land Management in Taos, gathered observations from BLM rangers and managers: “Staff have encountered some prairie rattlesnakes this summer up in the northern portion of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. The encounters are not out of the ordinary, and sightings have been average for the season.”
BLM staff members said that visitors may see either prairie rattlesnakes or western diamondback, depending on the location, with prairie rattlesnakes being most common in Taos County, and diamondbacks being seen farther south in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, Mora, San Miguel, Torrance and Union counties.
While most often seen near the Rio Grande and in desert areas, rattlesnakes can also be found in higher elevations. Cortez said, “We sometimes see rattlesnakes on the west side of Carson at 8,000 to 8,500 feet, depending on the habitat and the prey available. The cut-off is about 9,000 feet. Rattlesnakes are cold-blooded and like to warm up as much as they can, so we don’t usually see them at higher altitudes.”
Cortez explained that in the Tres Piedras Ranger District, especially in areas near San Antonio Mountain, rattlesnakes have been spotted in ponderosa pine zones and in lower areas of sage, prairie grass, and piñon/juniper. Rattlesnakes look for old mine shafts or natural caves to hibernate in the winter. “Old-timers in Tres Piedras have told me they’ve heard masses of rattlesnakes hissing and rattling in these dens to keep their body temperature up,” said Cortez. “If you see a high concentration of snakes there may be a den nearby.”
Rattlesnakes can also take on the coloration of their surroundings. “Because we’ve had so much rain this year, the snakes may turn more green in color in order to blend into their habitat,” explained Cortez.
Having grown up in Taos, Cortez heard snake lore from his grandfather, who said that the first lightning and thunderstorms awaken the snakes from their winter hibernation. His grandfather also told him to carry osha root in his pocket to ward off snakes — a practice followed by many locals, he said. According to plant lore.com, osha is has a reputation for keeping snakes away (plant-lore.com/osha/).
Rattlesnakes are often seen sunning themselves early in the season, but by summertime some snakes may have already sought cooler environments. Aragon of the BLM explained, “It is very likely that encounters would occur in the morning or late afternoon. Prairie rattlesnakes usually remain still unless they feel threatened. They are most active at night because of the heat during hot summer days. Most sightings are out on rocks and within the crevices of the rocks for shade, on footpaths and under shrubs when it is hot. Just about anywhere you walk, you should be on the lookout. In the mornings, they may be seen sun-basking in open areas, mostly rocks.”
In order to avoid encounters with rattlesnakes, be aware of your surroundings and make sure you can see where you are stepping or placing your hands. Cortez observed, “If a rattlesnake is coiled up it can strike two to three times its body length. If you see a rattlesnake, stay away and go the opposite direction.”
Rattlesnakes don’t always inject venom when they strike. In fact, it is estimated that venom is only released in 20 percent of bites, according to BLM literature. “It uses a lot of energy to produce venom,” said Cortez. “Snakes don’t like to expend it unless they have to and they would prefer to save it to paralyze their prey.”
Bull snakes, which are also common in Northern New Mexico, are often mistaken for rattlesnakes. They have similar coloration and patterns, and can be even larger than rattlesnakes. Whereas prairie rattlesnakes range from between 3 to 4 feet in length, bull snakes often grow to more than 6 feet. Although they don’t have rattles, they can coil and hiss in imitation of a rattlesnake. Bull snakes can inflict a painful bite, so it is best to avoid them as well. Cortez reminds us that even rattlesnakes don’t always rattle before they strike, so give any snake that looks like it could be a rattlesnake a wide berth.
When in areas where you might encounter rattlesnakes, wear sturdy boots and long pants. Rattlesnakes are unlikely to be aggressive unless disturbed; most bites happen when a snake is accidentally stepped on or if a human is attempting to capture or kill them.
Dogs can also learn to avoid rattlesnakes through aversion training, which is offered once a year through local dog trainer Delinda VanneBrightyn. Recently, she invited a trainer from Las Cruces who has been offering the training for 25 years to come to Taos. As VanneBrightyn said in her announcement, “Rattlesnakes can kill or critically harm our beloved dogs. Each year, I reach out to trainers in order to bring this opportunity to Taos as a community service…” She added that it usually takes just one to two trainings in a lifetime for dogs to learn to avoid rattlesnakes.
What to do if you or your pet is bitten
According to the New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center, approximately 75 to 100 people are bitten by rattlesnakes every year in New Mexico. The center recommends remaining calm and getting away from the snake quickly. Seek medical attention immediately and, in the meantime, keep the bite area loosely splinted and level with your heart. Remove jewelry in the bite area that may restrict swelling. Mayo Clinic advises that victims not attempt to cut the wound or otherwise attempt to remove the venom. Consumption of alcohol or caffeine can also speed up the body’s absorption of venom. Call the Poison Help Hotline for guidance at 1-800-222-1222. If your dog is bitten, contact your vet immediately.
Living in harmony with nature
Although rattlesnakes can be a threat to humans and pets, we can remember that we are in their homes and do our best to avoid disturbing them. “When humans run into rattlesnakes their first reaction can be to kill it. If you try to do so, you are likely to provoke more of an agitated response. It’s important to remember that rattlesnakes are part of the ecosystem and it is actually illegal to kill them in some cases. By being more aware and tolerant as humans, it can go a long way towards turning the paradigm into a more friendly way of relating,” said Cortez.
There are apps available to help you be prepared if you are bitten, including SnakeBite911.
A brochure from The New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center details ways to avoid being bitten and what to do if you are, search for: hsc.unm.edu> documents > venom_snakes_broc-1.