Did you know rattlesnakes roam the Southeastern corner of the Lone Star State? When thinking of the venomous snakes in the region, the cottonmouth, copperhead and—to a lesser extent—the coral snake, more often come to mind. However, rattlesnakes are indigenous to the region.
The timber or canebrake rattlesnake is the one most commonly encountered and they are present from the northern reaches of Orange and Jefferson Counties on through the Pineywoods region.
According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, they have a heavy, light yellow, gray or greenish-white body with a rust-colored strip along the length of their back and a black tail is tipped with rattles.
“Timber rattlesnakes have yellow eyes with elliptical or cat-like pupils. Twenty to 29 dark, V-shaped crossbars with jagged edges form a distinctive pattern across their back.”
As rattlers go, they are docile in most circumstances and there are few instances of people being bitten by these beautifully marked pit vipers.
They are however, the subject of an ongoing urban legend of sorts that we first proved untrue on these pages in 2006.
According to the story, in a secret effort to replenish diminishing timber rattlesnake stocks, government officials have been stocking captive-bred specimens of the venomous reptiles at various locations within Texas’s national forest land.
It is unclear which government agency is responsible but some reports indicate it could be the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) while another rumor has it linked to a clandestine Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) project.
I say “story” but the truth is I have heard numerous tales of rattlesnake restoration efforts in the Pineywoods of East Texas. One gentleman even told me his uncle’s brother-in-law had some released next to his farm near Crockett. Hundreds of them.
Where did these stories originate?
Well, rattlesnakes have technically been “released” into certain areas in the Pineywoods. However, scientists did not breed them in captivity, and they are not part of some secret restoration effort.
These “released” rattlers are simply ones that were captured as part of a radio-telemetry study conducted by officials with the U.S. Forest Service. Timber rattlesnakes were captured in the wild, fitted with radio transmitters and released back into the wild so researchers could track their movements.
There never has been a timber rattlesnake stocking program in Texas or anywhere else.
According to TPWD endangered species specialist, Ricky Maxey, the rumors have been floating around since the 1990s.
“I used to work in the Big Thicket area out of Beaumont, and we used to get questions about rattlesnake stockings frequently. And it seems the rumors are still pretty rampant,” Maxey said.
“Someone could have seen Forest Service officials capturing the snakes or releasing the ones fitted with transmitters, and the rumor could have started there. Then again, it could be the case of a true story getting less and less truthful as it’s told,” he said.
The pigmy rattlesnake is also present in the Pineywoods region and is very rarely seen. I have only seen one, and that was in 2000 on my old deer lease in Newton County.
These snakes only attain lengths of around 18 inches and are super reclusive. They are most often seen crossing roads in the evening and are a true enigma in the region. Most outdoors lovers are not even aware of their presence.
Diamondback rattlesnakes are also in the region as well, at least dwelling in areas few people would expect. A capture reported to us by veteran local meteorologist Greg Bostwick two years ago gave us the first glimpse of area diamondbacks.
“The snake was captured alive about one mile south of my house in Chambers County and was about 4.5 feet long,” Bostwick said.
The snake was found north of Winnie, and that is not typical diamondback territory. In fact, there aren’t supposed to be any until you get a bit west of Houston moving toward the Hill Country and southward on the coast in the Matagorda area. That is at least according to some field guides. If you look closer, however, you can see there has been a population on Galveston Island for many years. In fact we ran a story about the county putting up warning signs about the snakes at the courthouse there.
Mike Hoke, recently retired director of Shangri-La Botanical Gardens, said a diamondback was found during an expedition a while back at the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge. In addition, I spoke with a reliable source last year who reported killing a diamondback near the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge after Hurricane Ike in 2008.
Both of these snakes were believed to have been western diamondbacks, which are indigenous to the western 2/3 of Texas, but the reason for three sightings/captures since our slate of hurricanes in the last six years is interesting.
Texas is home to a large variety of rattlesnakes, most of which are rarely seen except by those who pursue them for study in the Trans Pecos region of the state. I will be blogging about these various rattlers on the my Kingdom Zoo blog at fishgame.com this month so make sure and check that out.
For now, rest assured no secret agencies are stocking rattlesnakes on your deer lease, although that doesn’t mean you don’t have plenty of rattlers lurking in the brush.
Chester Moore, Jr.