People are not the only ones flocking to Front Range trails as temperatures warm

By Shauna Farnell

There’s never a good time to wind up in the hospital with a rattlesnake bite, but this spring it is particularly pertinent to avoid both the hospital and the rattlesnakes. As medical personnel are taxed with treating Coronavirus patients and more people than ever are seeking fresh air on their neighborhood trails, rattlesnakes are emerging from their winter dens and, like we humans, soaking up warm temperatures.

“We do get a lot of reports of snakes in the spring,” said Tina Jackson, Species Conservation Coordinator at Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Part of the reason for that, being a cold blooded animal, they have a tight range of temperatures they prefer to be out in. During the spring and fall, those temperatures tend to happen in the day time, when a lot of people are out on the trails.”

There have already been numerous rattlesnake sightings at popular trail areas on Colorado’s Front Range, but rattlesnakes are not dangerous if given space and left alone.

“Some of the recommendations I’d make, especially in this current situation, is definitely maintain social distance from people, but as much as possible, stay on the trail,” Jackson says. “With increased activity with so many people on the trails, it’s going to make the trails less likely places for the snakes to sun. They’ll go off trail to get the temperatures they want, but if a snake is laying in the middle of the trail, give it space.”

As people are distracted keeping ample distance between themselves and other trail users, they stand a higher risk of stepping off trail and potentially onto a snake.

“Right now people should be asking, how do you socially distance in rattlesnake habitat? Everybody’s wearing their mask, everybody’s trying to get outside and stay six feet or more apart from other people, but when you’re distracted, you’re not thinking abut what’s on the ground,” points out ecologist Joe Ehrenberger of Adaptation Environmental Services, which conducts numerous rattlesnake-specific studies and services around Colorado. “The snow is melting fast, water is seeping into the ground, the snakes are going to come up and get warm. When you’re on trails making space to let someone pass, you need to be able to see where you’re putting your feet.”

Wearing closed toe footwear and keeping dogs leashed is always key when hiking or biking on Colorado’s trails, but communication is crucial, even more so as open space areas are busier than normal as Coloradans seek outdoor recreation during the pandemic.

“Just because you’re wearing a mask doesn’t mean you can’t communicate,” Ehrenberger says. “If you’re following some of the basic rules – making sure one ear bud is out if you’re listening to music, watching the trail ahead of you, looking who’s out there, looking for a safe spot to pass or be passed, you should be OK. Rattlesnake accidents are rare when people are aware of their surroundings.”

If you do see a rattlesnake, the best course of action is to leave it alone and keep a safe distance away from it.

“When accidents happen in Colorado, it’s when people take a trail short cut or when people interact with a rattlesnake. If you have an animal that’s defending itself, if you don’t give it an escape route, it’s possible the escape route could be through you and you might get bitten,” Ehrenberger says. “We’ve seen people on open space trails that think they’re doing a public service by killing a rattlesnake. If you kill a snake, that head could still deliver a bite for hours and those bites are much more severe than they are from living snakes. Snakes do a tremendous job of rodent population control. We need them. You just have to give them space and leave them alone.”

As it turns out, while humans are socially distancing in the current environment, Colorado’s rattlesnakes have a habit of doing so every spring.  

“It’s analogous to what we are doing in this Covid-19 situation; those snakes are trying to disperse and socially distance themselves,” Ehrenberger says. “Certainly this time of year there is an expected high number [of rattlesnakes] on North Table, South Table, Green Mountain. Those snakes are leaving their dens, sick of their roommates, ready to spread out, but have limited space. They are largely trying to be somewhat isolated.”

Social distancing in rattlesnake habitat

  • If a trailhead or parking lot is already crowded, choose a different location.
  • Scan the trail ahead and keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. Their color ranges from dark grey to yellowish tan with dark patterns on their backs. As other non-venomous snakes (such as bull snakes) look similar, the most distinguishing feature is the rattle on the tail. They can either be coiled or outstretched.
  • Beware of where you step when making room for other trail users. Try to stay on the trail, but if you step off trail, make sure you can see where you’re stepping.
  • If you see a rattlesnake, make sure you give it at least 10 feet of space. Give it extra space if it is coiled and rattling (i.e.: in defensive striking position)
  • Never try to harm or kill a snake. Leave it alone.
  • Keep dogs leashed and on the trail.
  • If you or a pet is bitten by a rattlesnake, stay calm and/or keep the pet calm. Don’t overexert (do not run or do anything to unnecessarily increase your heart rate). If you have soap, water or cleaning solution, try to disinfect the wound, lightly wrap it and keep the area even with the heart. Get to the nearest hospital or vet as quickly as possible. Do not leave a bite victim alone. If you are alone, seek help from those around you.

PHOTO: Jason Clay/CPW

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