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Why is Winona so goddamn full of rattlesnakes right now?

This summer has seen an uptick in rattler sightings, but the DNR still doesn't want you to hit one with a shovel.

This summer has seen an uptick in rattler sightings, but the DNR still doesn't want you to hit one with a shovel. Barney Oldfield

On Monday, over 50 guests and a few members of the news media gathered in the Holzinger Lodge in Winona.

A webcam was set up near the back of the room so the Winona Police Department could livestream the proceedings. At some point, one of the attendees raised his hand and asked the question everybody had probably been secretly pondering:

“Can an average 41-year-old man outrun a snake if it gets ticked off?” he asked.

Jamie Edwards, supervisor of the nearby Whitewater Wildlife Management Area, nodded. She was there to answer all the questions she could about Winona’s most recent environmental concern: rattlesnakes.

This meeting came after city officials had been flooded with calls about rattlesnakes over the course of the summer. There have been a grand total of 26 reports this year—pretty average by the time peak rattler season comes about, Edwards said—but 15 of those took place between now and June.

The Winona County Sheriff’s Office posted about the significant uptick in sightings on Facebook, and the community became a little… what’s the right word, here? “Shaken,” maybe?

“THIS IS NOT OKAY WITH ME,” one commenter said.

Hence the meeting. It gave wildlife authorities a chance to answer questions and reassure the public—for their sake, and the snakes’. The fact is, the timber rattler (Crotalus horridus), which lives in southern Minnesota, is a protected species. Until 1989, local governments paid hunters bounties to kill them, and the combined persecution and habitat destruction has left them vulnerable.

It’s perfectly legal to kill a snake if you feel your life is in danger, Edwards said—but all the same, she and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources would rather you didn’t.

“These snakes are not very aggressive or vicious,” she explained. In fact, she told KAAL-TV news, there have been no rattler-related injuries yet this year. They even provide an indirect boon to humanity by eating the rodents and other small mammals that can be vectors for Lyme disease.

The only reason they’re bothering Winonans at all is because they tend to slither down from their dens in the surrounding bluffs during the warm months to cool off and look for mates. The recent spate of hot weather might have prompted their sudden arrival en masse, huddling in woodpiles or under porches (much to everyone's surprise and chagrin). 

Edwards offered some helpful tips for future encounters. As much as some people might like to hit the uninvited guest with a shovel and call it a day, she said, that’s probably not the safest course of action anyway. It does require you to get uncomfortably close to a venomous snake, after all.

Better to back away slowly and call the police department’s non-emergency number. In time, a conservation officer or a volunteer will come to wrangle it off your property.

This spate of snake activity will probably ebb around early October. If you’re in Winona and you come across one, call 507-457-6368.