Rattlesnakes in Boulder County

I just got off the phone with a Ranger with the City of Boulder Openspace and Mountain Parks.  She had texted me that it was a very interesting snake weekend in Boulder County and that definitely peaked my interest.  I started off the conversation by asking her if she had heard about the two rattlesnake bites in Eldorado Springs Canyon over the weekend.  She laughed and told me that there had been 5 rattlesnake bites on City Openspaces over the weekend.  Her laughter wasn't at the bites but at my gross underestimation of human-rattlesnake encounters.  My information was from a local fire chief that had helped extract the canyon bite recipients.  It was clearly outdated and underestimated.

So why all these rattlesnake bites in one weekend?  That is why the Ranger reached out to me.  She wanted to brainstorm and talk it through.  I could only tell her one thing - cow pies.  Rattlesnakes emerged from hibernation in my area in the middle of April.  They have been fasting all winter and are hungry.  It is now the end of May (at least last weekend) and they have either gotten a meal already and are digesting someplace safe from humans or they haven't gotten a meal and they are starving.  So why would I say cow pies?  Well, hungry and hunting rattlesnakes coil themselves into a small circle, hide their tails (rattles) under a body coil so it doesn't make noise, and wait.  They wait for days until a prey item happens in front of them and then they strike fast and hard to deliver a deadly (to rodents not humans or dogs - at least not the prairie rattlesnake that lives in Boulder County) cocktail of digestive enzymes (venom) into their prey.  Although instead of a small rodent or lagomorph (rabbit), five hunting rattlesnakes mistaking bit humans this past weekend.  My guess is based upon that none of the bites were preceded by a rattle and all of the bites occurred on the feet or lower legs of humans.  I could be wrong and at this point, it doesn't really matter.  We will need more data to really draw conclusions about each one of these bites but that is not the purpose of this blog post.  The purpose is to talk about how to safely enjoy our openspaces and avoid encounters with rattlesnakes.

Cow Pie waiting in ambush for a small rodent.  It is my opinion that these are the rattlesnakes most likely to bite a human as mistaken identity.  I would love to have someone study what is needed to make this snake strike.  Is it just a warm object (rodent, human foot) or do they need chemical cues (smell) as well?
Cow Pie

We will first talk about how to stay safe with just you and your family and then end with how to stay safe with your dog in rattlesnake country.  If you can remember the word SNAKE, you can stay safe in areas with rattlesnakes.  Here is the acronym blown apart for you to stay Snake Aware:

S - Stay on trail.  This is really difficult as more and more people explore our openspaces but it might just be the most important thing for staying safe.  Rattlesnakes are EXTREMELY cryptic.  They are nearly invisible when in the tall (and short) grasses or next to a rock in a boulder field.  Once you leave the trail, your chances of seeing a rattlesnake is greatly reduced.  This creates an opportunity for you to step on or near a cow pie (hunting rattlesnake) and these are the snakes most likely to mistakenly bite a human (they can't eat us so why would they want to bite us?).

N - Never engage, approach, or threaten a rattlesnake.  This might sound like common sense but you would be surprised at the number of males ages 18-30 that can't follow this advice.  They have to catch or worse, try to kill a rattlesnake.  This is a recipe for disaster.  No one has ever been bitten by a rattlesnake that they left alone.  REMEMBER THAT - no one has ever been bitten by a rattlesnake that they have left alone.  So, just leave it alone.  Don't try and get it off the trail.  Don't try and relocate it.  Don't try to kill it.  All of these things increase your risk of being bitten.  Just walk away.

A - Always give a snake room to escape.  This means back away and let the snake do its thing.  When approached, many rattlesnakes will begin to rattle and move backwards away from danger (YOU).  Snakes often freeze and remain frozen for some time, especially if confronted by a something larger than them.  This makes it harder to believe that the snake just wants to get away from you as it sits frozen in front of you.  But by backing away and giving the snake room to flee and escape, it will eventually move again and disappear someplace safe.

K - Know the snakes in your area.  It is surprising to me how little we pay attention to the animals and plants around us.  As a natural historian, I want to know what everything is so that when I find something different, I can get excited and learn more about it. Not all of us are like me, and I am finally beginning to understand that in my old age.  But, if you live in a place where there could be venomous snakes, I implore you to at least learn how to identify them.  Watch this video to learn how to identify a prairie rattlesnake - Prairie Rattlesnake Identification.

E - Everyone (including the humans) goes home safely.  That is, if you stay on trail, never engage a rattlesnake, always give it room to escape, and know the snakes in your area.  

The big take home message is to stay on trail and be snake aware.  Just knowing that you are in an area that potentially has rattlesnakes can increase your chance of seeing it before it sees you.  And if that happens, you can take cool photos and videos to share and have an incredible story to tell.

Now to talk about dogs and rattlesnakes.  Dogs use their incredible sense of smell to explore the world around them.  This is only a problem when they find a skunk or hiking with dogs in rattlesnake country.  Here is a list of 10 things I recommend when hiking with dogs - some might be a bit repetitive but hey, I want you and your dog to be safe.

  1. Don't take your dog to places with rattlesnakes.

  2. Stay on trail - this means your dog too.

  3. Don't use those extendable, retractable leashes - they let your dog wander to where you can't see (like off trail).

  4. Don't take your dog to places with rattlesnakes.

  5. Stay on trail - this means your dog too.

  6. Don't use those extendable, retractable leashes - they let your dog wander to where you can't see (like off trail).

  7. Don't take your dog to places with rattlesnakes.

  8. Stay on trail - this means your dog too.

  9. Don't use those extendable, retractable leashes - they let your dog wander to where you can't see (like off trail).

  10. Don't take your dog to places with rattlesnakes.

Hopefully you are both laughing and annoyed at my list but truthfully it is the only way to ensure that your dog doesn't encounter a rattlesnake.  If your dog is off leash and off trail in rattlesnake country, this is like playing with a revolver with one bullet.  You can keep spinning the revolver and pulling the trigger without ever shooting it but then bang, the gun unexpectedly fires.  If you do take your dog into rattlesnake country, stay on the trail and keep your dog on a short leash.  I know I am writing (at least trying to) with a little humor but this is a serious matter.  Dogs are amazing snake bite survivors (approximately 80 percent of dogs bitten by rattlesnakes survive) but why risk it?  There are plenty of places to take your dog for a walk or run that don't have rattlesnakes.  Go there instead.  There are lots of dog training operations that offer rattlesnake avoidance training for your dog but their methods are extremely cruel to both the dog and especially the snakes they use in training.  There is a method being used in Arizona that is amazing for both you, your dog, and snakes.  Maybe with my past as a dog trainer, I should be bringing this method to you here in Boulder County.  Hmmmm.  Add that to my list. 

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