A few weeks ago, I wondered if there were rattlesnakes in Tahoe. (See post here.) The answer appears to be either no or very few. (No one has reported to me a sighting in the basin.) It's an interesting question because there are rattlesnakes at equivalent elevations elsewhere in the Sierra.
Recently, wildlife expert and photographer Jim Stamates wrote me an addendum to the subject. Here's what he said.
“Another thought; perhaps the snakes were killed by the early settlers to the basin. They cut down all the trees, killed all the deer for miner's food, commercially fished all the Lahontan Cutthroat trout, why not snakes? Their comeback would be harder than most, as you mentioned, trying to get over the summits.”
It makes sense and is the best explanation yet of why we don't have rattlesnakes. Back in the 19th century, our forebears did a pretty good job of trashing Tahoe as they cut nearly all the forests down to provide the supporting timbers for uncountable miles of mining tunnels beneath Virginia City.
Although several notable voices of wilderness preservation rose and became part of the fabric of discussion about Tahoe (think John Muir, the Sierra Club, The League To Save Lake Tahoe, etc.), Tahoe developers in the mid-20th century continued the trashing with an embarrassing gusto, filling in wetlands, dredging canals, and building roads and putting up buildings without regard to runoff and other impacts on the area.
Some of the worst results of our impact on nature have been mitigated to some degree by changes in policy. One possible impact – eliminating rattlesnakes from the basin – hasn't been documented or mitigated to my knowledge. (Anyone out there for reintroducing rattlesnakes to our paradise???)
Unlike other efforts to bring Tahoe back to an ecosystem closer to that of 100 years ago with regard to fish and beaver and a range of other creatures, the poor rattlesnake doesn't seem to have a lot of supporters, patrons, and cheerleaders.
Sorry, all you herpetologists. For now at least, when I'm out hiking, I'll keep picking up interesting rocks and other objects without wondering what surprise may lie underneath.