More rattlesnakes could be in the forecast for N.M.

·5 min read

Aug. 2—Heavy rains don't just bring the threat of dangerous flooding, which can devastate portions of the state already hard-hit by recent fires.

They also bring rattlesnakes looking for a bite to eat.

That's because rattlesnakes' prey — usually rodents and rabbits, which multiply quickly — also come out after a good rain, snake experts say.

"Usually lots of rain creates a lot of foliage," said wildlife enthusiast Tom Wyant, a so-called snake guy who has become the go-to person when you want the slithery creatures removed from your property.

That extra foliage, he said, "brings out more rabbits, which multiply, and rodents and packrats, and that could be the reason we are seeing more rattlesnake activity — because of the food source."

While rattlesnake bite reports around the state are down compared to this time last year, the likelihood of encountering a rattler could increase this month for a number of reasons — including the steady rainfall.

Wyant said he had just captured two diamondback rattlesnakes ready to mate on a property in White Rock on Monday morning. Rain could have played a factor in drawing them out, he said. But warmer temperatures in the 80s and 90s help as well.

"When it warms up, that brings them out, gets them in the sun and more active to do whatever they need to," he said.

Rattlesnake season in New Mexico runs from April through September, according to the New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center. But the peak month is August, when high temperatures and continued monsoon activity beckon them from their dens.

Dr. Brandon Warrick, acting medical director for the center, said Monday his facility generally sees 70 to 100 snakebite cases a year.

He echoed snake experts' warnings, noting "when rains come and there is an increase in food sources, then we see an increase in activity with rattlesnakes."

In addition, snakes are no different from people in one regard: They flee flooded areas. And when that happens, there is a chance snake activity would increase, Samuel T. Smallidge, a wildlife extension specialist with New Mexico State University, wrote in an email.

Citing a 2020 Journal of Environmental and Public Health report, he wrote: "The potential for human/pet/snake encounters likely increases with increased snake and human activity during the summer months. There is some evidence that increased incidence of snakebites following flooding events does occur."

Still, during this calendar year, the poison and drug information center has only seen 23 reported snakebites, Warrick said — a drop from last year's count of 37 at this time.

That may be because the correlation of heavy rainfall to more rattlesnake activity may take a year or two to develop.

A 20-year study conducted by researchers at the Stanford Health Care and the University of Colorado, found from 1997 to 2017, every 10 percent of increase in rainfall over the past 18 months led to an increase in snake bites by 4 percent in all California counties.

Dr. Grant Lipman, an emergency medicine specialist who was one of the researchers for the study, said by phone Monday the report shows there is "a really strong association — almost a predictor — of snake bites based on weather and the climate."

That does not mean a season of heavy rainfall will immediately lead to a season of heavy rattlesnake activity, he said. But if it increases snake activity, it increases mating practices among them, which means "a larger snake population, which would then go on to bite people."

The report also noted encounters between humans and rattlesnakes, and thus the number of snakebite reports, dropped during extreme periods of drought, when less water and food are available.

New Mexico has two types of poisonous snakes — the rattlesnake and the coral snake. The latter is small and lives mostly in the southwestern part of the state.

Warrick said his center has only had two incidents of coral snake bites in the past 30 years. The majority of snakebite cases are from rattlers.

Those bites are usually on the hands and feet of people who either don't see rattlesnakes nearby or lean down to disturb them with sticks or hands, he said. Most of the victims are men, he said, and alcohol often plays a role in those bites.

"In the prototypical bite, somebody is trying to poke at the snake or irritate it," Warrick said.

If a rattlesnake does bite you, don't panic, Warrick and Lipman said. The advise to call 911 if possible and get to the nearest medical center. If the bite occurred on the hand, remove any rings or finger jewelry.

He also has a don't-do list: Do not apply a tourniquet to the bite area. Do not try to suck or cut out the venom. Do not try to capture the snake.

Meanwhile, more rain is expected for much of the state this week, according to meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. The chance for precipitation is above average for the rest of August in many parts of the state. Higher than average temperatures are also expected through the month.

That means the rattlers will likely stick around to soak up some sun and get three square meals a day if possible.

And even when the snakes decide to hibernate, weather has an effect.

"Our first cold snap is an indicator that snakes are heading back to wherever they can find a den," he said.