Raising rattlers 

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Call him the "Snake Whisperer" if you'd like (some do), and it's true they seem calmer in his presence, but Ryan Lewis sees his work with the City of Lethbridge's rapidly disappearing Prairie rattlesnakes as more educational than vocational.

You see, Ryan is the guy you call if a rattlesnake turns up, say, on one of the city's many golf courses, its sprawling university campus, or, increasingly, in your backyard. He not only scoops the snakes from harm's way (humans are far more lethal to rattlers in Alberta than vice versa, having killed and displaced thousands while not a single person in the province has ever died of a rattlesnake bite), but offers insight on how best to coexist with these non-aggressive, ecologically important critters. He's not the first to volunteer this service, having taken over from a local naturalist known as "Rattlesnake Reg," but he's certainly broadened the conservation reach and outcome.

The city's small, ultra-endangered rattlers persist, on the southwest edges of this ever-sprawling community, where they use the steep coulees and benches of the Oldman River to move between the shrinking grasslands of surrounding prairie and the Cottonwood-lined valley bottom. It has been estimated that some years see less than 50 adults. And while this is likely an underestimate due to the difficulty of censuring cryptic species, even double that is below the critical minimum required for population recovery.

According to the city's own "Living with Rattlesnakes" brochure, restoring rattlesnake populations is "... a difficult and often uphill battle." And not just because humans would rather not have rattlers near their neighbourhoods. The animals' low reproductive rate is also a concern: females take four to seven years to mature and have small broods of four to 12 live young only every two to three years, many of which don't survive their first winter here at the northwestern limit of the species' range.

On a warm, mid-September afternoon I'd joined a group of scientists fresh from the inaugural Canadian Herpetological Society conference in Calgary for a rattlesnake "tour" with Ryan at the Lethbridge Nature Reserve's Helen Schuler Nature Centre. Started in 1982, the centre sees up to 25,000 visitors a year and runs a range of programs. The centre has been disseminating rattlesnake information since 1988, both onsite and through mass mailings.

Ryan relates how Blackfoot First Nations men were often paid in drinks to remove snakes from people's land in the old days. He also notes how the Blackfoot worldview sees humans as a "new" species on the scene, one that needs to adapt and learn from animals that have lived here longer — including rattlesnakes. Thus Ryan, who teaches phenology (the study of how the biological world times natural events) and seasonal plant use in a Blackfoot school, relays a broader conservation message that highlights synanthropic (these animals are often considered pests, which are not domesticated, but live near, and benefit from, humans and their dwellings) relationships, including those with symbiotic species that can be mutually beneficial.

Where Reg wasn't much for outreach, and his program — which lacked even an official name — wasn't very public, Ryan has been the opposite, spending much time instructing people how to be both rattlesnake safe (stay on trails, dogs on leash, back away when encountered) and rattlesnake friendly (don't use garden netting — it's like a gill-net death trap for snakes). He shares his snake rescues, relocations and other conservation work extensively on YouTube and Facebook. In addition to outreach and education, Ryan helps rehabilitate injured snakes, and recent triumphs including animals whose tails were run over and one that got stuck in the tar of roadwork.

Rattlesnake Reg had built a man-made hibernaculum (basically a bunch of buried rocks and logs) on a steep, southeast-facing coulee in 2001 to relocate wayward snakes to, and though Ryan isn't yet sure it's being utilized, he notes there's also a rookery (birthing area) on the same site that's used regularly. Which is where we head to first.

We arrive at Cottonwood Park just as afternoon breezes stir down the coulees. It's warmish for September (19 C) and the ground is hot; much snakier weather than last week's surprise snowfall. Ken, a local naturalist tells us that most plants here are invasive, which doesn't bode well for the snakes — the alien grass is too long for ground squirrels, on which snakes rely to some extent for food, but more so on their burrows as summertime retreats. Ryan joins us late because of a snake call at the university, the offending — though now somnolent — rattler in a white restaurant bucket, around which we eagerly crowd.

"When you look carefully at the face of a Prairie rattler," he points out, "you can see a second face, a false one. That's a rodent lure." It's just one of many interesting things we learn as we head downslope toward the rookery, which is surrounded by pass-through fence hung with warning signs. The argus-eyed herpetologists immediately spot a few pencil-length neonate rattlers, and even some well-camouflaged adults around the man-made den structure, confirming that Reg's effort has, in fact, been successful.

What follows, as we head through grass along the rim of the valley to another den site, is a herpetologist's dream — and a hiker's nightmare (a perfect illustration of why it's best to stick to trails in rattlesnake country). There are basking rattlers expertly concealed in the grass everywhere, and we even discover a new large hibernacula complex with a few dozen large adults. More dens equal a bigger population, a conservation win for both Ryan and the scientists, many of who sit on Canada's endangered species committees.

The only problem is that many of the snakes have to skirt, or cross, new subdivisions to get here. Some developers are trying to work with the issue, but Alberta Fish & Wildlife hasn't helped by instructing one, whose houses come within 50 metres of a den, to build 30-cm-high fences around their developments, high enough only to keep out babies — and that's just the start of Ryan's struggle to save Lethbridge's lonesome rattlers.

A recent post from the rattler Facebook page documenting how he was called in by a panicked parent to deal with a fake snake shows what he's up against: "Genius move by the playground architect of the Canyon Estates subdivision... build a life-sized, somewhat realistically painted rattlesnake on a rock that children use to climb up to the slide, in a neighbourhood that is territory to a large population of real rattlesnakes. Unless something changes here, this won't be the last time I'm called out to wrangle this guy..."

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.

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