Rattlesnake season is here again

How to avoid these venomous vipers, and what to do if you get bit

Bob Wooley
bwooley@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 5/3/21

If you’ve been hiking, running or general sight-seeing around Golden or the Western foothills, you probably know this time of year is when rattlesnakes come out of their winter dens. And in the …

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Rattlesnake season is here again

How to avoid these venomous vipers, and what to do if you get bit

Posted

If you’ve been hiking, running or general sight-seeing around Golden or the Western foothills, you probably know this time of year is when rattlesnakes come out of their winter dens. And in the immortal words of the Notorious B.I.G., if you don’t know, now you know.

Mary Ann Bonnell, Park Ranger for Jeffco Open Space, knows all too well.

“We had several sightings on South Table Mountain just a few days ago, and I tweeted about it,” she said. “I would not want to know how many visitors are walking past snakes sitting coiled quietly because I think it would probably make me very worried.”

She said they’re probably there, sitting next to the trail, and nobody’s the wiser because the snakes are normally docile.

Bonnell said Jeffco estimates they get seven million visitors to Jeffco Open Space’s 27 parks each year and in a normal year they only see around two cases of rattlers biting humans and half a dozen dogs being bitten. She said it’s surprising, but severe conflict levels are very low. That’s because rattlesnakes don’t want to be around people any more than we want to be around them. 

“We’re not prey to them, so their goal is to avoid us,” she said. “Where we have bites, is very frequently the visitor steps on or steps right over or puts their hand right where the rattlesnake is. And that is how people are bitten.”

She said it’s almost always an accidental encounter (because who would intentionally step on a rattler). And it doesn’t mean the person wasn’t paying attention because the snakes are so well camouflaged. Climbing or bouldering can also lead to those bites when the climber puts their hand on a ledge or crevice of a rock that’s already inhabited.

According to Bonnell, the most common spot a person gets bit is on the inside of the ankle. So, wearing hiking boots that offer protection is a good idea. 

“I frequently tell our visitors, at least wear a closed-toe shoe,” she said. “When I see people heading up North Table Mountain in Teva’s or flip-flops, I just think, oh goodness.”

Bonnell said rattlesnakes start coming out of their wintering dens on sunny days in April, but don’t venture too far from the den because the temperature can still drop and that’s a good way to die if you’re a snake. So, they tend to bask on warm sunny spots until about mid-May when they start to venture out to their summer foraging areas.

“Anywhere where you have this nice rocky exposure like the Dakota Hogback, Fountain Formations, Red Rocks, Matthews, Winters, Roxborough, Ralston Butte or the mesas like South Table Mountain and North Table Mountain, it is great rattlesnake habitat,” she said.

“Because there’s places to hide, there’s places to bask.”

Once you get beyond the first foothills, it gets a bit high in elevation for a rattlesnake’s preference, she said. So, places like Evergreen and Conifer have relatively few sightings.

If you see one

If you do see a rattlesnake, Bonnell says to give the snake space and room to leave the area.

“Don’t start throwing rocks at it. Don’t poke it with a stick. Don’t try to move it. These are all things that could put you or the snake in danger,” she said. “You’re just making the snake angry. And if it bites when it’s angry, it’s going to release a lot more venom than if it was just mellow.”

They also can move or strike incredibly fast, Bonnell said — Faster than some people may realize. She said if a snake is stubborn and refuses to leave the trail, you can step around it but make sure to leave at least six feet between yourself and the snake.

And be careful if you step off the path to walk around a snake because if its buddy is sitting in the grass nearby, you might not be able to see it.

According to Bonnell, unlike some places where there can be dozens of snakes per den, research her department conducted in 2017 showed a more diffuse number of snakes cohabitating. That said, there could still be several snakes basking in a relatively small area, so if you see one, there may be others nearby.

If you do get bitten, Bonnell says the best thing to do is stay calm, because the more agitated you get, the faster the venom moves through your system. Call 911 if you have cell service. Tell the operator you’ve been bitten and where you are if you can. 

Bonnell says it may be tempting to try to hike out or get to your car but you should stay put and have help come to you unless there’s no other option. Driving is not advised because of the risk of going into shock behind the wheel.

If you aren’t in cell coverage area, try to send someone into coverage area to call for help. If you’re alone, you would have to calmly walk to cell coverage area and call 911. 

Bites can also cause swelling, so take off rings, watches or other jewelry that could constrict if you swell. And keep the area that’s been bitten “body neutral,” she said. For example, if you’re bitten on the hand, you want to hold your arm like it’s in a sling, with your hand near the center of your torso. If you get a bite in the ankle or leg, you should sit down.

Lastly — know where you are. Bonnell said it’s surprising how many people who call for help who don’t know where they are —even which park they’re in. 

Time is an important factor if you’ve been bitten, so being able to give your location to rescuers is crucial.

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