Snakes studied in Canadian desert

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OSOYOOS, British Columbia - Upon approaching the Nk'Mip Desert & Heritage
Centre, traffic signs casually warn visitors to be aware of xaxulax, or
rattlesnakes.

There was no concern that any reptiles would slither onto the roadway, as
they were hibernating for the winter. Still, the images of snakes, with a
suggested 25 km/h (15 mph) speed limit, are visual reminders to guests that
they are entering Canada's only warm-weather desert.

When these snakes are dormant in their dens, the center's employees use the
off-season to evaluate the data collected in the previous six months. The
Rattlesnake Research Program, funded by the Osoyoos Indian Band, has
completed its third year studying the indigenous Northern Pacific
rattlesnake, the only one of seven snake species in the region that's
venomous.

Provincially designated as threatened and on the Canadian list of species
"at risk," the Northern Pacific rattlesnake has suffered a significant
decrease in its numbers over the last quarter century within British
Columbia's Okanagan. Burgeoning activity in Osoyoos has swelled the human
year-round population to 5,000 and, during the summer when the town becomes
a tourist destination, the area's expansion has resulted in the snakes'
general loss of habitat. The animal is further endangered when it comes in
direct contact with people or, more probably, cars.

To reduce contact between man and animal, the research program attempts to
determine the snake's behavioral and migration patterns. Cultural
interpreter Shelley Witzky, in her third year at the heritage center, said
it was the Osoyoos First Nation as much as any local entity that wanted to
obtain such knowledge because of its own economic plans.

"We're going to impact the snakes and we wanted to know how we can mitigate
[such] impact," said Witzky about the decade-long construction activities
that will be undertaken by the band.

Using telemetry by placing a radio transmitter on the larger snakes, which
can grow to four feet, Nk'Mip's study has shown how individual snakes are
specific to one den and will rarely travel more than a mile from where they
were hatched. With a shrinking area in which to inhabit, and because the
rattlesnakes don't move away, the species ultimately faces a losing battle.

In addition to compiling general data like weight, length and gender, DNA
and blood samples have also been taken to observe breeding manners. For
further identification, Witzky said the snakes are given a "pedicure," with
bright colors painted around their rattles for added visibility.

Before the program started in 2002, local elders were consulted and their
permission sought to respect the reptile's sacredness. Prayers were offered
to generate positive energy when handling the snakes because of the taboo
associated with the animal.

"Part of the protocol wasn't to touch the snake because if you don't bother
it, they won't harm you," Witzky said.

As the First Nation has respected and shied away from the animal, still the
rattler is admired. Unlike most animals, including other snake species that
climb trees, the Northern Pacific rattlesnake lives its whole life in
contact with Mother Earth - one reason for its honored status.

Witzky related how, when he was growing up, people were required to make a
lot of noise when walking through the low-lying sagebrush and grasslands so
as not to frighten the abundant reptiles. However, while not proven, the
consensus is the animal's population has fallen by about four-fifths since
the 1980s.

Even as North America's least-aggressive rattlesnake, misconceptions
continue to exist. Witzky relayed a story that occurred 80 years ago when a
local pastor, after one of his congregants was bitten and died, went on a
rampage to eradicate the snakes'. The attitude toward the animal hasn't
changed that much, she believes, despite evidence to placate the public's
fears.

"Once they [the snakes] know somebody is coming their first reaction is to
remain still, as they rely on their camouflage; and if they think they're
spotted, that's when they'll move [away]," said Witzky.

Bites are a rare occurrence, Witzky added, pointing out that a safe
distance to be from the snake is three yards. Because Northern Pacific
rattlesnakes live below an altitude of 1,000 feet, any victim will be close
to town: and as local hospitals are equipped with antivenom, there are even
fewer casualties.

After emerging from the den, the snakes remain active from May through
October and that's when the research program assembles its statistics. The
public is encouraged to take the one-hour Snakes Alive! Tour, in which
visitors can watch the animals being tagged with microchips. This past
summer was the most productive, as 280 snakes were examined and then
released, projecting an estimate of around 1,000 of the species in Osoyoos.