By Sally Griffin
What kind of wild critter can close sections of Jefferson County Open Space? This creature is three to four feet long, can reach weights of up to five pounds, and is a master at blending into the undergrowth. It has markings that usually consist of regular dark blotches and flecks on a lighter background with a dark stripe through the eye. It is usually shy and can produce an uncomfortable buzzing noise. What makes this relatively light-weight creature capable of closing trails is that it is very poisonous. Last year, one of these creatures killed a 31-year-old triathlete on Mt. Galbraith in Golden. And, yes, it is my least favorite animal: a rattlesnake.
Daniel Hohs, the triathlete from Arvada, was the first recorded death in the history of Jefferson County. It should not be surprising that his death caught the attention of Jefferson County officials.
Mary Bonnell, a Jefferson County Open Space Visitor Services Manager, has been involved in rattlesnake research for close to 20 years. She doesn’t think that there is an increase in the rattlesnake population, but instead an increase of people out on trails where rattlesnakes like to bask in the sun. She thinks that since people have, through social media, more ways to share rattlesnake encounters, this may give the impression that there are more rattlesnakes.
Most closures of trails are temporary and occur when there may be a high concentration of snakes right next to trails. People like me are grateful that the authorities are keeping us away from these critters. Just seeing a rattlesnake jacks up my heart rate. I have even found that I can levitate several feet in the air after hearing a buzzing noise near a trail.
My increased heart rate and levitating may not be the best way to deal with a rattlesnake encounter. Experts recommend practicing the 30/30 rule: Slowly walk 30 feet away from the snake and give it 30 seconds to leave the trail. They emphasize that you should never attempt to move or harm a rattlesnake. The best plan is to give them time and space to move away from you. If you agitate a snake, it is more likely to bite you and when it bites it is probably going to release a lot more venom than a bite from an accidental encounter.
Other things you can do to reduce the risk of bites include:
• Leash your dog,
• Wear boots or closed-toe shoes,
• Stay in the middle of designated trails,
• Be aware of your surroundings,
• Be careful using ear buds or headphones. The rattlesnake has only one way to warn you and that is by buzzing its rattles.
If the snake feels that a threat persists, it will elevate into an “S” shaped coil and inflate its body to look as large as possible. Often the snake will hiss and rattle rapidly. This is a highly agitated snake and you don’t want to be anywhere near it. Usually, the snake must sense that it is in mortal danger before it strikes. It doesn’t want to waste its venom on you when it could be better used to subdue prey. Keep in mind that this is a reptile brain you are dealing with and its definition of mortal danger may be quite different from yours. Rattlesnakes are not built for speed and cannot get away quickly. They often have no choice but to stand their ground if threatened. Luckily, while 74 percent of people using Jeffco Open Space have seen a rattlesnake in the last two years, only 4 percent have had a conflict with the snake and only one has died.
Our hogback areas are prime habitat for rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes can’t stand temperatures that are either too cold or too hot. They need places to hide and they need to find food. The rocks on the hogbacks offer a huge array of places for rattlesnakes to either get cooled off or warmed up and to find prey. Their prey includes ground squirrels, prairie dogs, mice, rabbits, lizards and ground-nesting birds. Rattlesnakes, with their heavy bodies, are predators that lie in wait and may spend hours or even days in the same location waiting for their prey to pass by. They, in turn, serve as prey to hawks, eagles, coyotes, foxes, and other snakes. In addition, automobiles kill thousands of rattlesnakes every year.
Apex Park, Deer Creek Canyon Park, South Valley Park, Ken Caryl Valley, North Table Mountain, South Table Mountain and Clear Creek Canyon are the most common places in Jeffco Open Space for rattlesnakes. Rock formation, huge rock slabs, wall faces, warm rock and rock to hide under means you are going to find rattlesnakes. Heavily urbanized places are not great rattlesnake habitat, but if you are near a hogback or a prairie dog colony, you may want to be aware that you are near things that rattlesnakes like.
Rattlesnakes have a predictable pattern of activity. During cold months, they shelter in a winter den, which might contain as many as a hundred snakes. That is not a place I would want to stumble upon! They resume activity in April or early May. In the spring and fall, cool temperatures require them to bask in the sun or warm surfaces for much of the day. Hard surfaces like pavement and trails are sought for basking thus increasing their encounters with people. They are most active in the late afternoon and evening when they have become warm enough for activity. This is when they are on the prowl for food.
Unfortunately, because people choose to provoke the snake or are unlucky enough to step on one, bites do occur. Though only rarely fatal, a bite is very painful. If bitten, remain as calm as possible, do not attempt to drive yourself, and call 911. Give clear directions to your location. Despite what you may have heard, do not attempt to cut, suck, ice or apply a tourniquet. Sit down and keep the bitten area at or below heart-level. Anticipate swelling and remove rings, bracelets or other items that might constrict. Do not attempt to capture or kill the snake to identify it. The authorities know there is only one dangerously venomous snake in the Front Range. In the same manner, if a pet is bitten, they should be kept as calm as possible and taken immediately to a vet for treatment.