WEST MILFORD-The debate over black bears and their regular visits into residential areas has been much publicized of late. Less so, however, is the presence of a much smaller and perhaps more feared creature, the timber rattlesnake. Mount Laurel resident Jim Novak claims the snakes are appearing in greater numbers and in larger forms than he has ever seen before. Novak lives on Larchmont Drive and claims the longest snake he's seen so far was around 40 inches and as thick as his wrist. Novak said, "Before this time I've seen only two snakes in the last ten years. I have now seen nine on the street in a two week period." A few doors down from Novak, Bruce and Donna Bamond saw photographs of one snake, taken as it crossed their driveway. Bruce said, "I saw one in the backyard a few years ago and I've seen four in the past month." Donna Bamond said "I've seen the pictures but I'm not really afraid of them." West Milford Police, through media spokesperson Dot Link, said Monday that there have been few calls from the public regarding snakes. Link said, "There are only three reports of snake calls since July 21, one each on Evergreen Road, Melrose Road and Reidy Place." While fear of the snake by humans is often cited and recorded, it is perhaps the snake that has more to be afraid of. Kris Schantz is extremely familiar with timber rattlesnakes as part of the state's Division of Fish and Wildlife. Schantz works with the Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP) which seeks to conserve the state's biological diversity. "As far as endangered species are concerned, the timber rattlesnake is at the top of the list" said Schantz. "It is virtually impossible to count their exact numbers due to their nature, but studies over a long period show their numbers have significantly declined in the northeast." The entire eco-system of the region could be affected by the snake's decline as they provide a crucial element to the balance of nature. Schantz said "In ecological terms, the rattlesnake is vital as they keep the rodent population in check as well as being the prey themselves to many other animals, such as hawks." The snake was added to the New Jersey's endangered species list in 1979, primarily due to the fact that they occur in relatively small numbers and in few areas. The snakes are also the target of wanton killings and illegal collecting. Other factors depleting the snake population, which ring familiar bells to the bear debate, are habitat destruction and alteration, as well as human encroachment into rattlesnake habitation. As a result, under state laws designed to protect endangered species such as the timber rattlesnake, it is illegal to harm, harass or collect the snake. Schantz said the reptiles have no desire to be around humans and only do so on rare occasions, "The snakes don't want to be around people. Male snakes will wander out of their normal vicinity to find a female and some other snakes may be looking for rodents as food, but they definitely don't want human interaction." Beverly Lujbli is a West Milford Animal Control Officer. Lujbli is one of three officers who are called out when a report of a snake is made. Lujbli said that a permit from the state is required to handle the endangered rattlesnakes and that all three officers hold this permit. "When we are called out to a rattlesnake report we respond by picking up the snake and relocating it, under state guidance, no more that 300 feet away," she explained. According to Lujbli, the state advises that a snake will likely die if moved further away due to its inability to find the scent back to its den. The ENSP are on call to residents and will come out to a home where a snake has been reported and move it. Schantz also asks residents to consider the larger picture "People can help by protecting part of New Jersey's heritage by giving us a call." Schantz affirmed her belief that residents have little to be afraid of from snakes, "People may find it hard to believe from the movies but the snakes really are more afraid of us," she said. "Changing the image of the snake will be really difficult but I'd hope that our program can help people accept them," she concluded. Read more on the endangered species program at www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/ensphome.