DILLON — Bonnie Reed isn't afraid to cut a rattlesnake's head off with bare hands.
In fact, the snake hunter who finds the predators' dens, catches rattlers and kills them has decapitated hundreds of snakes through the years in her effort to control their population.
On a recent afternoon she ran at a group of rattlesnakes with determination.
With a 5-foot long "snake catcher" in her hand and donning thick, bite-proof chaps, the 62-year-old didn't want to let the large female escape into its den.
"Let's get her before she gets away," Reed said, running toward the rocky outcrop.She grabbed a snake with the catcher as it started down and pulled the 4-foot female from the rocks before flinging it toward a bare patch of ground. Reed quickly snatched two other snakes from the rocks and flung them as well and later found a fourth near the den site.
For Reed, rattlesnake hunting is a mission. She said she doesn't hate rattlesnakes, but neither does she especially care for them. Her dislike for the reptiles was driven home last summer when one of the predators slithered onto the deck of her home west of Dillon to within feet of her elderly mother, who is blind.
Reed said she doesn't want to drive rattlesnakes to extinction. She just wants to keep the population in check.
"I just got tired of living with them," she said. "I know there are people who like them and want them around, but if I put them on their deck they wouldn't like them.
"I just want to get them to where you're not running into them all the time." Looking for dens Reed grew up on a ranch near Whitehall, where rattlesnakes were abundant. She said walking around the fields and swimming in the Jefferson River they bumped into plenty of rattlesnakes, and it was scary.
When she eventually ended up living in Dillon, word spread that she was good not only at killing snakes, but also finding their breeding dens. Ranchers in the area call Reed to help control the rattlesnake population on their property.
Reed said she gets calls from ranchers who've had horses or cattle bitten by the venomous snakes. The results are not pretty, especially for a colt that sticks its face close to a rattler out of curiosity.
"Their head just swells up like a balloon," she said. "They get it in the nose, and they're gone." She's seen cattle get bitten as well.
Reed said she tells area ranchers she'll come out anytime and kill snakes, but prefers to find the dens.
That's the best way to control the population. Those are usually rock outcroppings, often south facing. The gaps in the rocks provide shelter and a breeding area for the snakes and dozens — more than 100 — can be found in them. In winter, steam rises from the dens as the snakes congregate and generate heat.
Reed has found five dens in the Dillon area, including one within two miles of her home west of town that she searched for years to locate.
On a recent afternoon she revisited a den. A local rancher asked her to find it, but Reed told him to let her know when and where ranch hands starting seeing a lot of snakes. Not long after that the rancher called and said they'd run into nine snakes while fixing fence.
Sure enough, Reed came out and located a rocky area that was crawling with large rattlers. She pulled out a bunch of large "witches," which is her term for females that breed.
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One by one, she and Cleveland Hoover, who came along recently, dispatched of the snakes, one of which had a girth that an adult couldn't get fingers around.
"We're just going to cut their heads off," Reed said.
They did that by holding the snakes down with the 5-foot snake stick, which is equipped with claws that come together to hold a snake, while using a knife to decapitate them. She's never been bitten by a rattlesnake and said she never intends to.
Hoover was impressed at Reed's snake-handling abilities.
"She's an incredible woman," he said. "She's done it for years, and it's no big deal for her." Hoover acknowledged that some people are sharply critical of killing snakes because they're wildlife and help control small mammal populations. But like Reed, he said their goal is to keep the population under control and keep snakes away from homes and livestock.
"They've got a purpose, but sometimes they get a little too close," he said.
What the critics say Even though she finds it important, Reed knows there are critics who say killing rattlesnakes is harmful to the natural balance of predators and their prey.
Rattlesnakes are native to Montana, said Lauri Hanauska-Brown, a biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. And they prey on mice, gophers and other small mammals as part of the natural cycle of population control.
She said although rattlesnakes are not protected, the department is opposed to large scale killing of them.
"They do have an important role in the ecosystem," she said. "Whenever we talk about killing large numbers of them, that can have major effects on the ecosystem." She added that in certain cases in which a snake is found near a home, lethal control is warranted. In instances in which a den is found near people, especially children, or pets, some larger control may be needed.
But if large numbers of rattlesnakes are killed in remote areas, the small mammal population can swell. That can cause other problems.
"It may result in a situation that requires some other type of control," she said, referring to a need to control gophers that ranchers don't like digging holes in the ground. "It's just kind of one step in a messy cycle that would result from removing a natural predator." But Reed is unapologetic about what she does. She said there are plenty of rattlesnakes out there and they'll never go extinct.
She said she doesn't hate all snakes. And she even expressed admiration for rattlesnakes' effectiveness as predators.
"I respect them — they can kill you," Reed said. "I do this so people know these are nothing to mess around with." Sometimes she takes a larger snake and shows it to kids to educate them about the danger of snakes. She put the largest of the snakes caught last week in a bucket and traveled with the buzz of the rattle the entire day, holding the lid to ensure the snake didn't escape.
Her dislike of snakes is confined to rattlers that are dangerous to people, she said.