SALT LAKE CITY — Yes, they fear people more than people fear them, but that doesn't mean rattlesnakes don't strike terror in most who encounter them.
This is the time of year when Utah's five species of rattlesnakes are on the move, looking for precious water and rodents emerging from their winter dens, but drought conditions mean more may show up in yards and irrigated fields.
Rattlesnakes are most active during the summer at dawn and dusk, says the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, (DWR) and are most often found on rocky, high-elevation slopes.
When encountered, they will try to escape, but will bite if they are harassed or if people are illegally trying to kill them. It's a class B misdemeanor to do so, unless to protect or defend yourself.
Rattlesnake bites are rare, and they will do anything they can to avoid us.
"However, that changes if a snake thinks it's threatened and there's no way to escape," says DWR Native Species Coordinator Drew Dittmer said. "In that case, the snake will often strike to protect itself. Just don't approach it. Give it plenty of space, and leave it alone. Respect the snake, and you will be safe. If you are bitten by a rattlesnake, seek immediate medical attention."
When you are out hiking, make sure to always watch the trail ahead of you, and to check carefully before stepping over rocks, reaching onto ledges or sitting down on a rock or log, adds Dittmer.
DWR has these recommendations for rattlesnake encounters:
- Remain calm and do not panic. Stay at least five feet from the snake.
- Do not try to kill the snake. Doing so is illegal and greatly increases the chance the snake will bite you.
- Do not throw anything at the snake, like rocks or sticks. Rattlesnakes may respond to this by moving toward the person doing the throwing, rather than away from them.
- Alert other people to the snake's location. Advise them to use caution and to respect the snake.
- Keep dogs on a leash when hiking or camping. Allowing dogs to roam around increases the chance the dog will find a snake and get bitten.
- Don't jump or panic by the sound of a rattle. Try to locate where the sound is coming from to avoid stepping on it.
- Keep rattlesnakes out of yards by reducing brush and junk piles where they can hide, eliminating sources of water like bird feeders, and controlling rodents
Learn how to identify a rattler as well. Gopher snakes are often mistaken for rattlesnakes because when alarmed, they hiss and vibrate their tails. A rattlesnake's tail is wide and blunt, with a rattle, while a gopher snake's tail is slender and pointed.
Rattlesnakes also have broad, triangular-shaped heads, and vertical eye pupils, while non-venomous snakes in Utah have longer snouts and round pupils.
When in doubt, leave it alone and treat it as if it were venomous.
Still unsure? Get additional rattlesnake safety tips here.