Snakes of Pitchfork Ranch
Although we have not found the snake den, legend has it that a government entity dynamited a large rattlesnake den on the Pitchfork, maybe in the late 1940s, early 1950s. Although a neighbor who grew up here doubts it, he is aware of two dens on the ranch. We usually see a dozen or more rattlesnakes a year, although 2020 was a lean year for snakes here. We’ve never killed rattlesnakes, rather we capture them with the “snake-stick” pictured below, remove and relocate. We’ve moved many dozens from around the ranch headquarters. Once we found a young diamondback “ratter” in the kitchen, only to find a second one a day later. And when I removed the second juvenile, I found a third sibling behind the garage.
Melissa Amarello and Jeff Smith have established Advocates for Snake Preservation, https://snakes.ngo, a 501(c)(3) organization that “uses science, education, and advocacy to promote compassionate conservation and coexistence with snakes (and) conduct(s) research…following the guiding principles of compassionate conservation, dispel myths and misinformation about snakes through (their) blog, presentations, and publications, and identify threats to snakes, and provide resources on how we can address those threats.” For a comprehensive snake field guide for Grant County, New Mexico see: https://www.inaturalist.org/guides/11390
There is a peer-reviewed, contending that the Black-tailed Rattlesnake, Crotalus molossus, is not monophyletic, all Blacktails don’t share the same common ancestor. It’s been proposed that the Sierra Madre Occidental uplift beginning in the late Miocene and continuing into the Pliocene split ancestral Blacktails into two species, Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus) and proposed Eastern Blacktail (Crotalus ornatus). The naming of Eastern and Western snakes below is “iffy” as the morphological differences are subtle and beyond our skill-sets, but based on the published differences between them, we appear to have both species here. See the 2012 paper that proposed the “Eastern/Western” distinction here: https://scholarworks.utep.edu/open_etd/2232/
New Mexico burial records of colonial New Mexico show a number of cases in which the cause of death is a rattlesnake bite. Ratters could mean death for cowboys and there were instances where “rattlers, seeking warmth, would move into their bedding and go to sleep. To discourage that, the men often surrounded their blankets with a prickly hair rope, (sisal) laid on the ground. They firmly believed that snakes would avoid slithering over such a rope, since the scratchy bristles tickled their bellies.” As several of the photographs below demonstrate, this rope tactic doesn’t work as Blacktails have twice breached the rope in our outhouse, once to establish residency in the wall until removed.
Despite our initial fears, we have found — just like skunks — these gorgeous animals are easy to lived with. And even though there are an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 venomous snake bites per year in the U.S., snakebite fatalities are rare – maybe fewer than five per year. Yet, those living elsewhere are no to fortunate; in 2919 world-wide, snakebites accounted for about 130,000 deaths and more than 300,000 paralyzing injuries and amputations.