Dealing with snakes on a plain

Posted 6/11/10

Rattlesnakes live throughout Colorado anywhere below 9,500 feet. But the Front Range, with its dry grasslands, prairie dog colonies, rocky outcrops …

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Dealing with snakes on a plain


Rattlesnakes live throughout Colorado anywhere below 9,500 feet. But the Front Range, with its dry grasslands, prairie dog colonies, rocky outcrops and shrubs, is prime rattler habitat.

Recent incidents have brought these usually secretive serpents to the forefront.

On June 4, a young boy was bitten by a rattlesnake at the Chatfield Botanic Gardens. Michael Harris, 7, was in good condition at a local hospital following the incident.

The Great Plains Dog Park in Aurora has been closed since early May when two dogs in the same incident were bitten by a rattlesnake. In early June, another dog was bitten in its backyard in Aurora.

Despite these recent incidents, experts say there are no indications that local rattlesnake populations are growing.

Instead, more people and pets are moving into areas that used to be snake habitat, said Tudi Arneill, executive director of the Plains Conservation Center.

“People are frequenting areas where snakes live,” said Arneill, whose organization has conducted extensive snake research. “The species we have in Colorado are not an aggressive species. They don’t want to be around you because you are big and you are scary.”

There are three types of venomous rattlesnakes in Colorado and only one is found on the Front Range, the prairie rattlesnake, according to Tina Jackson, herptile coordinator for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

The prairie rattler can grow up to 4 feet long and doesn’t make it a habit to be seen very often.

Jackson said the snakes could be more active at this time of year since it’s breeding season, but agreed there are not more snakes this year.

“It could be some weather or localized habitat differences, but we are not seeing anything that makes us think there are more snakes this season,” she said.

Snakes look for a specific temperature range, so in the spring, they will be out sunning themselves during the middle of the day, Jackson said. But with the heat of the scorching summer sun, snakes will be more active in the cooler mornings and evenings.

Although some veterinarians have reported a higher incidence of snakebites to dogs this years, David Specht, of Vets on Broadway in Littleton, says he has not seen an increase. In fact, Specht said the Littleton area has a very low rate of bites.

Over the last 20 years he has been practicing veterinary medicine in the city, Specht said he has seen about one snakebite per year and those almost always occur in other areas, like Chatfield State Park and Roxborough Park.

Specht says he does not carry the antivenin because it is expensive and can sometimes cause side effects nearly as bad as the bite.

“I have not lost an animal to rattlesnake bite,” he said. “I use anti-inflammatory on my animals.”

There is a rattlesnake vaccine, Specht said, but most vets, including himself, do not recommend it because of its high cost and questionable effectiveness.

Skot Latona, supervisor of Park Interpretation at the Carson Nature Center, said there have been only three confirmed rattlesnake sightings in the South Platte Park in the last 25 years. He speculates that the habitat along the Platte just isn’t what the snakes prefer.

Bullsnakes, which are not venomous but sometimes mimic rattlers by shaking their tail, are much more common in the park. Bullsnakes may have created too much competition for there to be large numbers of rattlers in South Platte Park.

“Bullsnakes often out-compete rattlesnakes,” Latona said. “Rattlesnakes are ambush hunters, waiting for prey to come by. Bullsnakes are out there, making it harder for them.”

While Littleton may generally not see a high number of rattlesnake encounters or bites, surrounding local municipalities are not taking any chances. The Great Plains Dog Park will remain closed indefinitely until officials assess its safety.

“We are still evaluating the situation and that’s going to take some time,” said Jenna Baker, special projects coordinator with Aurora Parks and Open Space. “We don’t know when it might be reopened.”

What to do

If you see a rattlesnake:

Stop and slowly back away. Take an alternate route around it.

“Snakes see motion,” Arneill said. “If you stand still, then slowly back away and give them room, they will try to get away.”

How to avoid a bite:

Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t put your hands or feet in places where you can’t see, like the other side of a large rock, tall grass or a prairie dog hole. Don’t let your dog off leash in rattler habitat.

Most instances of snake bites, Arneill said, happen to men ages 18 to 24 who are trying to catch or kill them. Usually alcohol is involved.

“They will try not to bite if they don’t have to,” Arneill said. “Flip-flops might not be the best footwear for Chatfield.”

If you are bitten:

Remain calm and seek medical attention. Do not follow advice from old wives tales such as sucking the venom out or applying ice to the area.

“Some accidents happen, but the good news is the antivenin is available,” Arneill said. “It’s not a death sentence.”

Snake-proof property

Open areas up so they do not have a place to hide by removing dense shrubs, mowing tall grass, getting rid of brush and rock piles, and closing up any holes under buildings. Don’t do anything to attract a food source for snakes like mice or other small mammals.

“We figured out how to get along with almost everything,” Arneill said. “Maybe we could figure out how to get along with rattlesnakes.”


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