Camping

Here’s how to reduce your risk of a rattlesnake bite — a rare but feared event

Idaho has two types of native rattlesnakes — the Western and prairie rattlesnakes.
Idaho has two types of native rattlesnakes — the Western and prairie rattlesnakes. Statesman file photo

Snakes in Idaho are not overtly aggressive, said Bill Bosworth, wildlife biologist with Idaho Fish and Game. But snakes are fairly defenseless, so when they feel threatened, they might bite in self-defense. The only snake in Idaho that’s dangerous to humans (and their pets) is the rattlesnake. Many other snakes bite, but they are not venomous, Bosworth said.

Rattlesnakes are distinguishable by the sound of their rattle, a triangular-shaped head and patterned scales that range from tan to brown to gray. A mature rattlesnake is about 3 feet long.

Basic snake safety:

▪  When you’re out walking in areas like the Boise Foothills, be aware of what’s on the ground around you. Many people are bitten after accidentally stepping on a snake. Don’t reach into holes or crevices without knowing what’s inside.

▪  Wear over-the-ankle boots with socks and loose-fitting long pants.

Helpful tips to avoid a surprise encounter with a rattlesnake and what to do if you're bit, from Scott Smith, who teaches about reptiles and amphibians. Know when they're active and how they judge danger.

▪  Rattlesnakes usually rattle their tails in self-defense, but not always. It’s not unheard of for people to be bitten by rattlesnakes they never hear, Bosworth said.

▪  If you encounter any snake, give it space. Don’t try to touch or move the snake. The majority of snake bites come from people getting too close and trying to handle snakes, Bosworth said. The majority of snake bites occur on the hands, feet and ankles.

▪  Rattlesnakes are nocturnal and hunt at night. They are occasionally active during the day, especially during cooler weather. They are vulnerable to heat and are a food source for hawks, so in warmer terrain they will stay in the shade or hide under bushes, rocks or surface debris.

Peter Ott, now working for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, captured this video of two male western rattlesnakes engaged in "combat." The snakes are trying to assert dominance over one another, said Idaho Department of Fish and Game wildlife

▪  Check stumps or logs before sitting down and shake out your sleeping bags.

▪  If you are bitten, stay calm, Bosworth said. Avoid icing the wound, making incisions or trying to remove the venom yourself. Remove rings, watches and other jewelry in case of swelling. Go to a hospital as quickly as possible for treatment. Symptoms can range from no reaction to pain and inflammation to more serious effects, especially for those with snake venom allergies.

Rattlesnakes are in the viper group. Their fangs are designed to bite fast and withdraw. They won’t hang onto their victims.

In many cases, rattlesnake bites are “dry bites,” in which the snake does not release venom, Bosworth said. But even dry bites can cause an infection, he said. They also require immediate treatment.

Rattlesnake bites can be fatal for dogs, so look out for them when you’re on the trails, even keep them on a leash. Upcoming rattlesnake avoidance classes include June 3 at Julia Davis Park (idahohumanesociety.org) and June 11 at Veterans Memorial Park (snakeavoidance.org).

Keep in mind: Even though many people fear snakes, snakes are generally beneficial. They eat pest species like mice, rats and insects.

Bites from venomous snakes are relatively rare. According the the Centers for Disease Control, only five people die each year from venomous snake bites in the U.S. Fewer than one in 600 rattlesnake bites is fatal, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

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