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Snakes are rattling Utahns

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Normally rattlesnakes in Utah would be about as newsworthy as dust gathering on an end table — but that's changing.

By nature, rattlesnakes are satisfied with quietly slithering life away while shedding their skin, searching for food, sleeping and steering clear of humans. In the summer, they're generally content with catching a few rays in the morning or later in the day.

This year, more rattlesnake sightings — and bites — are being reported.

University Hospital has already treated nine people for bites this year — it normally admits about four or five victims in a typical year, a spokesman said.

And with about 20 calls logged so far, the Utah Poison Control Center is on pace to handle twice as many calls as last year, Dr. Martin Caravati, medical director, said.

Here in the arid West, we've built houses in the foothills and on mountainsides, right over or alongside old snake dens. In search of recreation, we ply trails into the backcountry, where a sudden but common sound of a rattle can send a chill up the spine and, occasionally, venom through the bloodstream.

"Very seldom are people bitten in the state of Utah," said Jim MacMahon, vice president of university advancement for Utah State University. An ecologist and former herpetology (the study of reptiles) teacher, he also has 40 years of experience handling rattlesnakes, gathering thousands for research. Incidentally, he's never been bitten.

Still, MacMahon missed thousands more rattlers in his travels, knowing that though he was probably close, the snakes would prefer to go unnoticed rather than confront a creature — humans — too large to eat.

Wildfires and dwindling food supplies due to drought conditions send rattlers snaking through back yards and into the paths of people, looking for rodents and refuge.

"Sometimes it's not that they're more common. It's that they're more obvious because they move more," MacMahon said.

Snake expert Mark Mesch, who works for the state Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, said increases in mountain biking, ATV use, trail running and people walking their dogs in the wild have flushed the rattlesnake out of anonymity and into the news. "All those things are taking people out of the city and putting them into areas that have always been inhabited by rattlesnakes." That means more snake bites.

Given the availability of antivenin, the worst effects of a bite are usually limited to tissue or muscle loss around the bite area. In Utah, Caravati could recall only one person, a child, dying from a snake bite in the past 10 years.

"It would raise my eyebrow if I heard of someone dying from a rattlesnake bite these days," he said.

Checks at other area medical facilities turned up one or two bite victims at LDS Hospital and none at Primary Children's Medical Center or Dixie Regional Hospital in St. George.

Rattlesnake facts:

Utah is home to four types of rattlesnakes: speckled, Mohave, sidewinder and, more common to northern Utah, the Great Basin variety of the Western rattlesnake. Of those, the Mohave rattler packs the biggest punch, having the most toxic venom and therefore posing the greatest potential threat to a human if bitten.

Along the Wasatch Front, rattlers are normally found below 6,000 feet in elevation where warmer temperatures are found. Near Grantsville, MacMahon noted, there are a lot of old dens. Distribution throughout the state, he said, is spotty.

A snake known as a bull, gopher or "blow" snake can shake its tail and hiss, making a sound as alarming as a rattlesnake — but it's not as dangerous.

A rattlesnake will usually see, feel or smell a person approaching and strike only in defense. Some snakes will deliver a "dry" bite, depending on whether they've bitten something, probably prey, earlier or if it's an adult conserving its venom. During warmer periods, they're more active earlier or later in the day.

Three treatments to avoid if bitten are: ice, tourniquet and cutting into the wound and trying to suck out the venom. Doctors advise simply driving immediately to the nearest hospital, or in the case of an animal, getting to the closest pet hospital.

Antivenin is also known as "horse serum." Snake venom is injected into a horse, whose body reacts by producing chemicals to fight the venom. Blood is then drawn from the horse and the beneficial serum separated for use in hospitals.

Don't try to handle a rattlesnake that appears to be dead, said Greg Mortensen, spokesman for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Because of prolonged nerve activity after an apparent death, a rattlesnake can still act on its instinct to strike for up to 48 hours. It's one thing, Mortensen said, that he learned before going into the field.

"Never trust a dead rattlesnake."

Whom to call if bitten:

There are three phone numbers for 24-hour emergency service to direct bite victims to the right hospital capable of handling such a call. Professionals at the numbers can also give direction to doctors and medical staff experienced with handling snake bites.

Local calls can be made to 581-2151; statewide, 1-800-456-7707; and from anywhere in the country, 1-800-222-1222.

E-MAIL: sspeckman@desnews.com