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Contrary to rumors, rattlesnakes east of Missouri River are alive and well

One North Dakota man has been studying rattlesnakes and found a den on the east side of the Missouri River.

A rattlesnake in a twisted heap in the grass.
A rattlesnake in Emmons County, North Dakota, in 2016.
Special to The Forum
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EMMONS COUNTY, N.D. — Growing up, Paul Bailey spent many summers in a cabin along Cattail Bay, tucked into the eastern side of the Missouri River. He knew rattlesnakes lived nearby.

“Being a kid, doing what kids do, exploring areas, I encountered a lot of snakes and had a fascination with them myself,” said Bailey, now with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

In 2015, when Matthew Smith, an associate professor in the North Dakota State University biological sciences department, invited Bailey on a trip to rocky terrain east of the Missouri River in Emmons County to study rattlesnake dens, he couldn’t say no.

“I have never intentionally been that close to rattlesnakes before, and the consequences of making a mistake can be severe, but I had Matt there guiding me and everyone else and learned how to avoid trouble,” Bailey said.

Ron Maier, retired game warden, also grew up in Emmons County. He’s known about rattlesnakes since he was a boy.


“They’re here; what more do you want to know? If you want to see rattlesnakes, go out and see them on a frosty morning this fall,” Maier said. “But it’s something you don’t go looking for, because they’re there, so you got to be careful.”

A metal grabber near a rattlesnake on the dry ground.
Rattlesnake handlers use special tools to pick up a rattlesnake in Emmons County, North Dakota.
Special to The Forum

He’s never seen them close to towns, “but that doesn’t mean they are not there. They’re usually out by the river, and farmers don’t stop their combines for lunch because there could be one lying in the shade. Everyone learns to respect them because they’re out there,” Maier said.

Smith investigates on his own dime, and he has been keeping an eye on dens in Emmons County since about 2014. His work dispelled myths that exist in some circles that rattlesnakes do not exist east of the Missouri River in North Dakota.

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“There have been whispers and rumors for as long as I can remember, but nobody had formalized where a den was,” Smith said.

At first, Smith found what he believed was a den. He confirmed his suspicions in 2015 and has returned to the area about five times since. During one expedition, he found 23 snakes in four hours, many of which were bathing in the sun.

“There might be 100 snakes in those hills, or the 23 I found might be all of them,” Smith said.

Although rattlesnakes are typically feared for their bite and because of the hair-raising rattling noise their tails make, there is much that can be learned from them, Smith said.

When he travels to rattlesnake territory along the Missouri River, he tries to clip their scales to mark them. Catching them, he said, is not difficult. He snags them up quickly, puts them into a 5-gallon bucket with a special lid, then takes one snake out at a time to insert them into a transparent plastic tube.


When they’re safely inside, he will draw blood, check the sex of the snake or look for identification.

A man in an orange sweatshirt uses a small syringe to draw blood from a snake that is partially encased in a clear tube.
Matthew Smith draws blood from a small snake on a rattlesnake hunt in 2016.
Special to The Forum

“They will rattle at the drop of a hat, and they don’t want you to encounter them. They will rattle to give you a warning,” Smith said, adding he’s been working with venomous snakes since 2002.

“You just walk carefully. You look where you are putting your feet and where you are putting your hands,” he said.

Every year, about five people die from snake bites in the United States, Smith said.

“Bees, wasps, hornets and dogs actually kill more people than snakes do,” he said. “Crossing the street is dangerous. I get more nervous when the landowner has cattle around, because cows kill more people every year than rattlesnakes do.”

Funding for reptilian work is difficult to find, he said, because the public does not like to see taxpayer dollars go into studying poisonous snakes.

Rattlesnake venom is being studied by scientists around the world, and the scaly creatures are an important part of the ecosystem, especially for curbing the rodent population.

“Venomous snakes have a wide variety of enzymes, and molecules in venom are being used to treat chronic pain in humans (and illnesses) including Alzheimer's disease and even cancers. Having these natural populations of venom that we can use to treat human disease can be amazing for us,” Smith said.


Additionally, the adult rattlesnake, an ambush predator, can survive on 500 grams of food a year and can lower its body warmth to a degree or two above freezing.

“Studying them, we can get insights into obesity, and they down-regulate their metabolic rate much further than we expect, which could also lead to inventions in long-term space travel — sleep chambers while we travel to Mars or something like that,” Smith said.

“What we can learn from that can directly transfer into our life,” he said.

A large rattlesnake is curled up on a rock.
Rattlesnakes are excellent at camouflage. This one was caught sunning on a rock during one of Matthew Smith's excursions into Emmons County.
Special to The Forum

North Dakota rattlesnakes won’t slither too much further east anytime soon, Smith said. During the harsh winters, they have to travel down into their dens, sometimes hundreds of feet, to escape the cold. Rattlesnakes cannot survive the long wintry months in the Red River Valley, he said.

Typically, rattlesnakes live up to 20 years, but some further east of North Dakota have been identified as 50 years old, Smith said.

Bailey said most snake bites occur when someone is trying to catch a rattlesnake, and many times alcohol is involved.

“Testosterone and alcohol do not mix in those situations,” Bailey said, adding that the trip out to explore rattlesnake dens was fascinating.

“I’m sure Matt got a bit sick of all the questions I was asking,” he said.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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