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Timber rattlesnake has a friend in Pennsylvania expert

July 24, 2010|By DANA BROWN
  • Jim Chestney, left, venomous species coordinator with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, assisted by his father, Jim Chestney Sr., surgically implants a radio telemetry device in a timber rattlesnake. The device will help researchers track the snake's movements in the wilds to locate den sites.
Dana Brown, Staff Writer

CARLISLE, Pa. -- Jim Chestney is sinking his teeth into making a difference for the Pennsylvania timber rattlesnake, a creature he says symbolizes the "wild, pristine areas within the commonwealth."

"What a magnificent creature," Chestney said. "There's an end to them and we don't want to lose this species."

The day after retiring from his career in financial services, Chestney took a position with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission as a venomous species coordinator with the commission's Natural Diversity Section, turning his 38-year hobby into a new career.

Chestney coordinates all field activities of the commission's statewide rattlesnake project, including "a very experienced team of volunteers with 15 to 40 years of timber rattlesnake experience," he said. They locate and assess rattlesnake sites and also capture and track rattlesnakes through radio telemetry to locate den sites in our gap areas, he said.

The transmission signals come from devices surgically implanted inside the body cavity of the snake that allow researchers to track the movement of the snakes to identify important habitats for the reptiles, he said.

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Chestney also performs the surgical procedure on the rattlesnakes.

"Snakes are different," Chestney said. "You can't just put a collar on them."

The timber rattlesnakes are classified as a candidate for the endangered species list. An important part of their research effort, Chestney said, includes identifying den locations, including those found on South Mountain in Michaux State Forest. The information, he said, is central to the commission's preservation efforts to identify threats to the species, he said.

The Pennsylvania project is leading the way across the country, Chestney said.

"This is the largest project of this type nationwide," he said. "Other states are now calling asking how Pennsylvania did it."

He has performed close to 40 surgeries to implant the transmitters, which eventually are removed, and a remaining microchip that stays with the snake for its lifetime. More than 1,600 timber rattlesnakes statewide carry microchips, Chestney said.

"We are very, very serious about protecting these snakes," Chestney said. "Through the fish and boat commission's proactive management in Pennsylvania, we hope to keep them off the endangered species list."

In all of the New England states and most states surrounding Pennsylvania, the timber rattlesnake either is threatened or endangered, he said.

The timber rattlesnake is important to the ecological balance of the forest, Chestney said. The snakes feed on rodents that, if left unchecked, could breed sickness and disease among the rodent population and possibly carry over to humans, he said.

Chestney said the venom of the timber rattlesnake is used in medical research and in the development of medications for heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. The venom also is being looked at to fight cancerous tumors.

Chestney said land development is affecting the timber rattlesnakes' habitat. Current research efforts help the commission "make recommendations to developers for avoiding and minimizing adverse impacts" to the rattlesnakes' habitat, according to project documents. The commission's Natural Diversity Section comments on about 3,000 permitted development projects annually.

But while development projects threaten the reptile, Chestney said, wanton killing of the snakes threatens their population as well. He hopes education will help stem that impact.

"Education is so powerful," Chestney said. "Once you know what it is, why it's there, it takes the evilness away from it.

Chestney said the biggest reason people kill rattlesnakes is out of fear. When land development disrupts the path of rattlesnakes, he said, they sometimes pass through the backyards of new homes. They have passed through the same area for years -- rattlesnakes live up to 30 years -- and now they have to cross a lawn where there once was forest, he said.

"Give them a shot with the garden hose," Chestney said. "Believe me, that snake will not come back. They just had an encounter with a predator. They don't want the encounter any more than you do. They are just passing through. They will not attack you. They will leave at every opportunity."

Cory Turben, who leads the project's northwest Pennsylvania field team, said the portrayal of the rattlesnake throughout folklore has perpetuated a general misunderstanding of the species.

"Snakes generate a lot of controversy and provoke a lot of interest," Turben said.

The timber rattlesnake, he said, is a "docile species."

"These would be the Labradors of reptiles," Turben said.

Chestney said that while there was a time the rattlesnake "was given no consideration" and its numbers were dangerously low, "Pennsylvania has come a long way, for sure in the last 10 years" toward understanding and raising awareness of the timber rattlesnakes' value to the environment and mankind.

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