Health

Rattlesnake study continues in Jeffco

Experts say October is a prime time for snake encounters

Posted 10/17/17

Even people who have never had a negative encounter with snakes can have a phobia of them.

“Snakes have a lot of creepy features,” said Mary Ann Bonnell, a snake expert and the visitor services manager for Jeffco Open Space. “They trigger …

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Health

Rattlesnake study continues in Jeffco

Experts say October is a prime time for snake encounters

Posted

Even people who have never had a negative encounter with snakes can have a phobia of them.

“Snakes have a lot of creepy features,” said Mary Ann Bonnell, a snake expert and the visitor services manager for Jeffco Open Space. “They trigger in us an inane fear.”

But it’s helpful when we can learn about the things we’re fearful of, added Andrew DuBois, seasonal education specialist with Jeffco Open Space.

The Front Range is good snake habitat,” Bonnell said. “People need to understand that if you’re recreating in the Front Range, you’re probably recreating with snakes.”

To help with educating the general public and park users about co-existing with rattlesnakes, Jeffco Open Space and Adaptation Environmental Services began a project/study in April led by expert snake biologists. The project, called What’s All The Buzz About?: Prairie Rattlesnake Movements in an Urban Landscape and Assessing Visitor Perception, is tracking 20 prairie rattlesnakes on North Table Mountain in Golden until about the end of November. The experts will check on the snakes this winter, then will have to capture them and remove the transmitters in the spring.

“The main goal is to increase visitor safety and rattlesnake awareness,” DuBois said, who has been doing educational outreach with snakes since 2015. “We want people to be confident in knowing what to do if they encounter a snake.”

And it has been successful, he added. In addition to the people who read the Rattler Tattler blog, which is running concurrent with the project, the group has made more than 700 contacts with park users while out doing field work.

“It’s rewarding that it has started a dialogue with people who use the park,” DuBois said.

There are about a dozen different species of snakes that live in the Front Range, Bonnell said, but the prairie rattlesnake is the only venomous one.

Rattlesnake sightings generally occur from April to November, Bonnell said, and tend to peak in May and October as night temperatures dip low enough to encourage basking on surfaces warmer than areas with vegetative cover, such as on trails that are adjacent to rocks and on roads angled toward the sun.

“This behavior makes snakes more visible to visitors and increases the chance of encounters,” Bonnell said.

Although sightings do happen, getting bit by rattlesnake is not common, she said. Bonnell estimated that in Jefferson County only about two bites a year happen with humans, but a dog might get bitten about three or four times a year.

“Prairie rattlesnakes are dangerously venomous,” DuBois said, but he added that it’s rare for someone to die if treated properly — which includes anti-venom and usually a costly hospital transport.

And it won’t be a pleasant experience, Bonnell added. She has never been bitten by a rattlesnake, but said most people describe it as a sharp pain followed by swelling.

It’s important to remember, though, that snakes generally won’t attack people, Bonnell said.

“When a rattlesnake bites a human, it isn’t a predatory bite,” DuBois added, “it’s defensive.”

Most bites happen when a snake is startled, Bonnell said, such as when a person inadvertently steps on a snake or sticks their hand somewhere without knowing a snake was there.

“It’s surprised, too,” Bonnell said, “so it bites.”

But another percentage of bites happen when a person engages with the snake, such as trying to get it to move with a shovel or putting it in a bucket to relocate it, Bonnell said.

“There’s all sorts of things that are dangerous about handling snakes, if you’re not trained to do so,” Bonnell said. “It’s a wild animal, and anything with teeth can bite.”

North Table Mountain was chosen for the What’s All The Buzz About project because it’s almost surrounded by urbanization, and it’s a multiple use park — people go there to hike, mountain bike, rock climb or ride horses, DuBois said.

“Most people know there are snakes here,” DuBois said.

And although data will need to be studied to get full results of the project, one thing they have learned so far, DuBois said, is that “our snakes are, more or less, good at living where there’s a lot of people.”

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