Rattlesnake nomination stirs venom

State reptile? Snake purists say there are no diamondbacks in Utah
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All social studies teacher Laura Graf wanted to do was involve Diamond Valley Elementary's fourth-graders in an educational experience.

"I wanted to do something that would make a difference in the kids' lives," says Graf, one of three fourth-grade teachers at the St. George school. "I wanted to do something that would make their year something they remember forever."

The students decided to promote an official state symbol or animal. The kids would have to do research in biology and history and would learn valuable civics lessons when they met with lawmakers and followed the bill through the Legislature.

Graf never intended to expose her classes to controversy or, worse, mean-spirited adults.

"I didn't realize the controversy we would get into," she says.

The students decided on the diamondback rattler.

"The school's name comes from the number of diamondbacks found in the valley," Graf says. The snake is the school's mascot.

Graf and her students enlisted state Sen. David Clark, R-Santa Clara, in their quest.

The students pitched the rattler to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. during his visit to the area - baking the governor a cherry pie (state fruit) and dancing the square dance (state dance). Everything was sailing along.

Except for one detail: The diamondback rattler, Crotalus atrox, does not occur in Utah.

"We were told the snakes around here are called Great Basin rattlesnakes. That's totally new to me and most of the people in the valley. All the old-timers call them diamondbacks," Graf says. "There's not a whole lot of difference between it and the diamondback rattler."

Snake enthusiasts apparently do not agree, and they told Graf so. In fact, whether 'Great Basin rattler' is the correct term can open a whole different rift among snake people.

"I got a lot of nasty letters. They said I should have done my homework. People said we shouldn't promote a snake that isn't in Utah just to cater to the kids," says Graf. "They threatened that they would oppose it [in the Legislature]."

The fourth-graders changed their nomination to the Western rattlesnake, a designation that covers the diamondback, Great Basin rattlers and the other subspecies crawling around Utah.

Still, John Legler, University of Utah professor emeritus of biology, warns against bandying about reptile common names.

"Old-timers have all kinds of names for things - that's why we have scientific names," Legler says.

Even Western rattler is iffy, he says. "You can call the snake 'Timmy' if you want to, but it's Crotalus viridis to scientists."

State symbols such as plants, minerals, birds, flowers are seldom controversial. The stuff of trivia questions, they're meant to promote the state's scenic splendor and natural resources. They often do double duty as a metaphor for the character of the state's people. Utah's insect, for instance, is the honeybee, promoting the state's work ethic.

But rattlesnakes that feed on anything they can swallow whole - and alive - inspire a different image. Tourism consultants face a challenge marketing a fanged state symbol that injects a venom resulting in excruciating pain and extensive tissue damage. Welcome to Utah!

Besides, Ledger says, "Having a Western rattlesnake as an official symbol might encourage other fourth-graders to go out and handle them. You better believe that's a venomous rattler."

If the kids have their hearts set on a snake, he says, how about Utah's own subspecies of Western racer, Coluber constrictor mormon?

"It's a nonvenomous and pretty snake. And the name would sure as hell be appropriate," Legler says, adding, "Rattlesnakes eat them."

Even better would be the Mojave Desert tortoise. "It would be eminently suitable," he says. "They are benign, delightful characters. And they are identifiable by the slowest fourth-grader."

The federal government conveniently has established a 61,000-acre desert-tortoise reserve only a few miles from Diamond Valley Elementary.

Unfortunately, the desert tortoise, Gopherus agassizii, is not universally beloved. Because of its threatened species status, the tortoise has triggered battles between southern Utah developers, ranchers, government bureaucrats and environmentalists that still smoulder.

"I'm a cowboy's daughter and the desert tortoise became a real issue here," Graf says. "They had a real hard time with the tortoise when the land was taken over [for the reserve]."

Other suggestions for a state reptile that Graf has received are even more controversial. One person nominated a former member of the state's congressional delegation, "If you're looking for a snake."

"At one point, I thought I should bag this - I can't have it become a negative experience," Graf says. But colleagues persuaded her to persevere.

"The students understand this may go and it may not go. But we will have done our very best. Whatever happens - we will use it as a positive learning experience."