Snake, Rattle and Whoa!
Spring 2020 Issue by Cyd Hoefle Photos by LInda Kelly
Reptile Wrangler Wrestles Rattlers
Roger Siemens knows more about prairie rattlesnakes than most of the people in Montana. He should. He’s been studying their habits, researching their habitat and living with them for over 25 years.
He didn’t set out to be a rattlesnake expert. It was something that happened quite by necessity, or accident, depending on how you look at it. And with it, Roger and his late wife, Rita, started what would become a sought-after service for landowners being overrun with rattlesnakes.
“It started quite innocently,” Roger explained. “We’d just moved to Silver Star and Rita had an encounter with a large rattlesnake out in her garden. I took care of it and told her that snakes happen and we’d probably not see another. A few days later, she encountered another and that was enough. She told me, ‘Either the snakes go, or I go!’ She ended up staying.”
Trying to figure out why there were so many snakes around their home and acreage south of Whitehall, Roger discovered multiple dens of rattlesnakes nearby. He began looking for ways to control them - and in the process a service was born.
That was back in 1994 and for the next 25 years Roger and Rita would visit ranches across Montana, locating dens, educating landowners about snake control and in many cases relocating the snakes they found.
“You don’t have to be crazy to do this line of work,” Roger said laughing, “but it helps.”
Prairie Rattlesnakes are the only species of rattlesnake in Montana and the only snake (in Montana) capable of delivering a venomous bite. There are no Diamondback Rattlesnakes this far north. According to Roger, there are 1000s of dens and many thousands of rattlesnakes located in the foothills, rocky crags and desert like tundra all across Montana.
“There’s no shortage of snakes in Montana,” Roger said. “They hide, though, because they are more scared of you than you are of them.”
A retired Forest Service ranger with a wildlife biology degree, Roger is familiar with most all of Montana as his 30-year career spanned the forests across Montana from the Beaverhead, Deer Lodge and Gallatin Forests to the Badlands of Custer in Eastern Montana. He’s worked and hiked across thousands of acres. But despite all the exposure he’s had to rattlesnakes, he has never been bitten.
Roger and his crew begin looking for dens as early as March when the earth warms up and the snakes start looking for food. Rattlesnakes gather in the fall and hibernate in community dens with other species of snakes over the winter.
“Their metabolism, their heart rate, their energy - it all slows down during the cold months. And when they come out of their winter dens, they are hungry. If you see one, it might hiss or rattle loud, but really, wouldn’t you too, if you hadn’t eaten in eight months and all you’d done is stare at your buddies,” Roger quipped.
Roger’s sense of humor has probably contributed to the success of his business as well as to his longevity. At 81, he’s still active and hikes as much as his aches and pains allow. He is also mourning the loss of his beloved wife of 60 years.
“She was a babe, I’ll tell you what,” Roger said, pausing to reflect on all the years they had together. “I miss her so much. Everybody loved my wife. She was something else.”
Rita was a very important part of the service the Siemens offered. “We both had a very healthy fascination and respect for rattlesnakes,” Roger said, “Rita was terrified of mice, but she got so used to snakes she became a huge part of our service.”
Roger depended on her to help him empty dens and together they would clear out dozens of snakes from a single den in one visit. Roger would climb up to the entrance of the den and toss the snakes to Rita by way of a snake tong and she would pick them up with her tong and place them into a container that they would haul away. “We made a good team,” he said.
After years of studying snakes, Roger doesn’t claim to scientifically know about them, but he has a wealth of field knowledge and common-sense lessons about them.
“There are a lot of rumors that are contrary to the truth about rattlesnakes.” he said, “For the record, they won’t chase you. They aren’t out there lurking to harm you. But they will defend themselves and that’s when they strike.”
When a landowner calls with concerns about snakes, Roger and his crew survey the area, locate the den and come up with a plan to either control or eradicate them. They have removed thousands of snakes from dens across the state to remote locations away from human activity. In cases where removal is not an option, Roger instills an awareness of the rattlesnake and its habits.
“You’ll see snakes around your dwelling for two reasons,” he said. “Either the area is a food source or a place to hide. Eradicate rodents from your living area to eliminate the snake’s food and be very careful around rocks, bushes and places where snakes like to hide, especially if you are working with your hands, and are placing them in those areas.”
Roger said that snakes spend up to 80 to 90 percent of their time in their dens, holes or undercover. “If you encounter a snake, you’re in their habitat and there’s a high probability that there is a den somewhere in the vicinity,” he advised.
Rattlesnakes help control the rodent population and they are part of the food chain as they are a food source for badgers, fox, coyotes, hawks and eagles.
Snake bites are rare in comparison to the number of snakes in the area and the number of people working and recreating outdoors. But it is wise to be prepared because it can and does happen.
Roger advises using a probe stick or walking stick when you’re out and sweeping the area ahead of you to scare any potential snakes away.
“Keep your eyes open and be aware,” he advised. “They are a part of our natural environment. They are very fascinating but dangerous. So always be aware.”
If you do get bit…
Contributed by Dr Greg Moore
Barrett’s Hospital, Dillon, MT
There is really nothing that can be done in the field to prevent the spread of venom that has been proven effective. In fact, most field treatments are harmful and delay effective antivenom treatment.
Recommended First AiD
-Move away from the snake, it may try to strike again.
-Try and stay calm, and do not delay transport to the nearest hospital.
-Note the time of the bite and gently wash the sight then mark the edges of the wound and cover with a sterile dressing
-Remove any rings, watches, bracelets as many bites have significant swelling
-Although there are no good studies you may immobilize the extremity bitten AT the level of the heart. Obviously, this will not be helpful for leg bites if you have to walk out.
-DO NOT DELAY, TRANSPORT TO THE NEAREST HOSPITAL.
The following treatments have been found to not only be ineffective but also can cause more harm and damage to the bite wound.
-Do Not try oral suction
-Do Not try mechanical suction
-Do Not cut the bite sight to enhance bleeding
-Do Not apply electric shock to the bite site
-Do Not apply ice
-Do Not apply a tourniquet or band
-Do Not apply a pressure wrap.