For Goodness Snakes

As a mother of three nature-loving boys, one of my house rules is "Only one snake living with us at a time." They caught their snake enthusiasm outside, tracking and holding hundreds of garter snakes before we ever bought a snake and let it sleep in one of the bedrooms. Before having sons, I hardly knew there were snakes in Montana. Now I see them everywhere.

One of our favorite snake spots is Dailey Lake, a scrubby sip-of-water-type lake in Paradise Valley, south of Livingston. A few years ago my oldest son Dylan started poking around amongst the cattails, lifting rocks and examining the details my grown-up eyes seldom noticed. He showed me snails, minnows, crawdads, and fistfuls of garter snakes. He began reading snake books and watching Crocodile Hunter, teaching his younger brothers what he learned. Now when snake-catching, they all expertly freeze, then swoop like herons, bringing up wriggly garters of varying lengths, shouting "I got one!" I hold their prizes while they search for more, pretending I am the coolest mom on earth.

Garter snakes, the most commonly seen snake in Montana, can bite or emit a foul odor if they feel threatened. We've experienced both, despite our policy that holding is always brief and gentle. Garter bites are more like nips that generally don't break the skin and can be avoided by releasing an overly squirmy, agitated snake.

Prairie rattlesnakes live around Dailey Lake too. We learned that a few summers ago when a friend was walking to the outhouse on a path through long, dry grasses. She heard hissing and felt something brush the back of her leg. I heard her yell and turned to see her stumble backwards. It was a rattlesnake, perhaps four feet long and impressively heavy-looking. Luckily she wasn't bitten, and a nearby windsurfer used a metal mast to load it into a Tupperware box, which he covered and slid into the back of his car. He quickly drove it down the road and released it away from people.

We have since driven past rattlers—Crotalus viridis, Montana's only venomous snake—sunbathing on the dirt road near Dailey, and always delight in viewing them from a safe distance. We don't hike in the area when they are most likely to be out. According to snake experts Edward Koch and Charles Peterson, authors of Amphibians and Reptiles of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, most rattlesnake activity is restricted to daytime during spring and fall; in summer, rattlesnakes are most active during the morning and evening, particularly on warm days.

For those who fear being bitten by a rattlesnake, Koch and Peterson say fear not. Rattlesnakes are "sit and wait" predators. "In our experience with rattlesnakes, we have been impressed with their attempts to avoid humans. During our observations of rattlesnakes at dens in Yellowstone, we never were struck at, even when we moved the snakes with snake hooks."

Most poisonous snakebites in this country are a result of people trying to handle or kill snakes, though with camouflaged rattlers there is always the possibility of accidentally stepping on one and being struck if you're not alert. That's what happened to one unfortunate ranch child who was walking across dry pastureland toward his house after checking the cows with his parents. He lingered behind and took a wrong step. The misstep put him in the ICU at Bozeman Deaconess Hospital for four days, where he recovered after prompt administration of antivenin.

Antivenin is commercially-made snake venom serum, created by injecting snake venom into horses. The horse's blood gradually develops antibodies against the snake venom. The antivenin is the serum base of the horse's blood and is effective in stopping the tissue damage, bleeding, and swelling caused by hemotoxic venom.

Another person visited the emergency room in Livingston last summer after reaching underneath his hot tub to fix something. It hadn't occurred to him that the dark, protected area made a perfect rattlesnake den.

But scary stories like that are uncommon, and adults generally recover quicker than children, says Vicki Gronewig, Bozeman Deaconess Hospital emergency room nurse manager. "We don't see even one rattlesnake bite per year. We've treated maybe two in the past four years."

What about handling any of the other non-venomous snakes—bull snakes, garters, rubber boas, or yellow-belly racers—found around southwest Montana?

"You need to get a little bit of experience," cautions Walt Timmerman, recreation bureau chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. "All snakes have teeth and all of them can bite. For instance, the bull snake could give you a pretty good bite."

Gopher snake Montana
A four-foot gopher snake (a.k.a., bull snake) in the Horseshoe Hills

Arguably the most fascinating snake in our area and the most approachable is the rubber boa. Unfortunately, it is also the snake you're least likely to see while hiking. However, Timmerman says the rarity of sightings probably has more to do with the fact that these snakes are nocturnal and like to burrow, rather than due to a small population.

The rubber boa gets its name from its brownish rubbery appearance. Although only 12-28 inches long, it is related to tropical boas and pythons and is one of two species of boas found in the entire U.S. "They've been reported all over the place in Montana," says Timmerman. "If you look in the guidebooks, you see specific populated areas identified, but I think they"re in more places than that. They are a secretive, wooded mountain, rocky-area-type snake."

They have also been found on trails paralleling streams, say Koch and Peterson. "When found, rubber boas frequently will not try to escape as most other snakes would. This species of snake is very docile and generally does not bite. We have observed individuals that, when caught in the field, can be wrapped around a person's wrist where they may stay for hours."

The rubber boa is certainly at the top of our list of snakes my sons and I hope to find this summer. Susan Ewing, a friend and local author who has written several wildlife-related books, has seen the rubber boa twice resting on trails on the west side of the Bridger Mountains. Sounds pretty lucky for such an elusive snake, but Ewing hikes a lot. "They look just like a toy, rubber snake," she says.

As for holding, Ewing reflects that it might be helpful to gently move a rubber boa off the trail if you spot one there. She has witnessed many smashed garters on trails over the years, presumably caught under mountain bike tires speeding downhill.

There is no solid data as to what effect our growing human population in the Gallatin Valley might have on area snakes. "Nobody knows anything about those numbers," Timmerman says. "In a place like Montana, you're not going to find many herpetology experts."

Koch's and Peterson's studies seem to suggest definite disappearances and declines of some species of reptiles and amphibians in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks over the past century. If there is a bright side in working to conserve these fascinating yet often-feared creatures, it could be in changing attitudes toward snakes, say Koch and Peterson. "We are now learning to accept that a rattlesnake or a wolf is not "good" or "bad," just as elk and deer should not be given a value based on human biases and emotions."

Which would seem to suggest that a pet snake should be just as valued as say, a playful new puppy. Evolution is a process, I tell my sons. It seems to be working on me.

Snake Identification
Identifying snakes can be tricky because snakes often have many subspecies. For instance, it's fairly easy to identify a garter snake, but is it a valley garter, a western terrestrial garter, or a wandering garter? It probably doesn't matter too much, but if you're interested, most western reptile guidebooks can help you identify them based on habitat, range, and color patterns. Here's a list of snakes you might encounter in and around Bozeman:

Bull Snake
These snakes are a subspecies of the gopher snake, and are Montana's largest snake, sometimes exceeding six feet in length. The patterned, tan to dark brown bull snake is occasionally mistaken for the prairie rattler, but can be identified by the fact that it lacks rattles. These powerful constrictors feed on small mammals and are generally found in dry grassland and sagebrush habitat, though they have also been spotted in green grassy areas.

Rubber Boa
These nocturnal snakes are closely related to tropical boas, and are one of only two boas found in the U.S. This docile, olive-brown constrictor reaches only 12-28 inches in length and gets its name from its unique rubbery appearance. Juvenile snakes look like earthworms. They have been spotted in a wide variety of habitats but are elusive and mostly found in rocky areas with loose soil or leaf litter, which they use for burrowing underground. They have also been spotted near streams. Though they feed primarily on small mice, they also climb trees and raid bird nests.

Prairie Rattlesnake
Montana's only venomous snake is a subspecies of the western rattlesnake, distinguished by the rattle on the end of its tail. It is a fairly large, stout-bodied snake, sometimes exceeding four feet in length. Coloration is often tan, gray, or even greenish-brown, with darker blotches in a pattern down the back. They favor open and arid country, but have also been identified in pine stands and mixed-grass coniferous forests. Den sites are often found in talus or rocky outcrops on south-facing slopes. As a pit viper, this snake uses its unique heat-sensing organ to locate small mammals. It injects venom via hollow fangs that quickly immobilizes mice, prairie dogs, rabbits, and other prey, then engulfs it.

Wandering Garter Snake
The wandering garter snake, a subspecies of the western terrestrial garter snake, is probably the most commonly encountered snake in our region, due to its large population, widespread habitat, and the fact that it is active during the day. These snakes grow up to 30 inches in length, and are further distinguished by typical garter snake coloration, with yellow stripes and a darker pattern over a base color varying from grayish-green to brown. They are commonly spotted close to water and eat a variety of prey including insects, frogs, toads, and fish.

Eastern Yellow-Belly Racer
This medium-sized, slender snake ranges from 27-45 inches in length and as noted by its name, is a swift-moving reptile. While this snake's yellow belly is standard, dorsal color ranges from uniformly blue, to grayish-green or even light brown. These snakes are fairly common and widely distributed, found in habitats ranging from wetlands to shortgrass prairie or even forested areas. They eat a variety of prey, which includes small mammals, though they seem to prefer insects.

What You Need to Know About Venomous Snake Bites

Only one percent of those bitten by a venomous snake in the U.S. die each year. If a venomous snake bites you or someone you're with, consider the following:

  • Time is critical and the victim should seek medical help as soon as possible. 
  •  Victims should try to remain calm and reduce physical exertion as much as possible. Physical excitement and shock allow the hemotoxic venom to spread faster through the circulatory and lymphatic systems.
  •  Any cutting or suction with the mouth in the bite area is not recommended. (There are snakebite kits which contain a mechanical device called a Sawyer Extractor, designed to suction venom from a snake bite for those planning excursions far away from help in snake country.)
  •  Use of a compression-type or wide elastic bandage can delay the spread of venom in subcutaneous tissue. Experts advise that wraps should be placed 1-2 inches above the bite, wrapped as tight as for sprained ankles.
  •  The American Red Cross says to wash the bitten area with soap and water. Immobilize the area and keep it lower than the heart while seeking medical help without delay.