How to stay safe if you encounter a rattlesnake this spring or summer
Salt Lake City — With the warmer weather, rattlesnakes will begin emerging from their winter dens, and you may encounter one while hiking or spending time outdoors. Rattlesnakes often strike fear in people, but they shouldn't. Knowing a little about how these reptiles behave and doing a few simple things can go a long way in keeping you and the snakes safe.
There are five rattlesnake species in Utah, the most common of which is the Great Basin rattlesnake subspecies. This is the time of year when Utah rattlesnakes are on the move, looking for water, warmth and rodents. Due to ongoing drought conditions, Utahns may see more snakes in their yards or irrigated fields, as the snakes search for water and prey. Snakes need water, but don't need as much water as most mammals and birds.
Rattlesnakes are most active during the hot summer months at dawn and at dusk, though they can be encountered at all hours. Snakes mainly eat rodents, birds and other reptiles. Rocky, high-elevation slopes are the most common place in Utah to encounter rattlesnakes — typically while someone is out hiking. However, you can encounter rattlesnakes in lower-elevation areas, as well. A rattlesnake's camouflage helps it to blend into its surroundings, so you may pass by a rattlesnake and never know it.
Rattlesnakes are protected under Utah law, making it illegal to harass or kill one. The only exception to this is if you are threatened and defending yourself; otherwise, it is a class B misdemeanor to kill a rattlesnake. They are an important part of Utah's ecosystem and help keep the rodent population in check. Snake bites are quite rare, and harassing or trying to illegally kill the snake greatly increases the risk of being bitten.
"Like most animals, rattlesnakes fear humans and will do anything they can to avoid us," DWR Native Species Coordinator Drew Dittmer said. "However, that changes if a snake thinks it's threatened and there's no way to escape. In that situation, 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 its space, and you will be safe."
In the rare event that you are bitten by a rattlesnake, remain calm and 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.
What to do if you encounter a rattlesnake
- Remain calm and do not panic. Stay at least 5 feet from the snake. Make sure to give it plenty of space.
- 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 children and pets away from the area.
- Keep your dog on a leash when hiking or camping. Allowing your dog to roam around increases the chance the dog will find a snake and get bitten.
- If you hear a rattle, don't jump or panic. Try to locate where the sound is coming from before you react, so you don't step closer to the snake or on top of it.
Keeping rattlesnakes out of your yard
Depending on where you live, you may occasionally find a snake in your yard. Here are some useful tips to help keep rattlesnakes out of your yard:
- Reduce the number of places that provide snakes with shelter. Brush, wood, rock and junk piles are all things you should eliminate from your yard.
- Control rodent populations. Bird feeders and water are two of the main items that draw rodents to yards, which in turn can attract snakes.
- Avoid scaring away harmless snake species, such as gophersnakes. Having other snake species on or near your yard may deter rattlesnakes.
Identifying a rattlesnake
Gophersnakes (the most widespread and abundant snake species in Utah) are often mistaken for rattlesnakes because when alarmed, gophersnakes hiss and vibrate their tails and are similarly patterned. A rattlesnake's tail is wide and blunt — and tipped with a rattle, of course — while a gophersnake's tail is slender, pointed and lacks a rattle. Rattlesnakes also have broad, triangular-shaped heads and vertical eye pupils, while non-venomous snakes in Utah have longer snouts and round pupils.
However, you shouldn't attempt to get close enough to identify what kind of snake it is. If you can't identify the snake from a distance, leave it alone and treat it as if it were venomous.