Surveying for Snakes

“Count the snakes and keep your distance!” a friend warned in an email after we told her our new assignment for biological work on the National Elk Refuge was to survey reptiles, mainly counting the snakes.

Unknown to her, the snakes in Jackson Hole are comprised of three non-venomous species. Because one species, the rubber boa, is nocturnal, we don’t expect to encounter it on our rounds, although our biologist mentioned he had seen one once during the day.

Other Species

The other two species are the wandering gartersnake and the valley gartersnake. The wandering gartersnake is the more numerous and is unlikely to bite if picked up. Instead, this species prefers to defend itself by exuding a musk in your hand, much like pooping. As we tell school children when we present a reptile program in their classrooms, this defense is very effective due to the pungent odor! Their response is always the same:  “Eeeeeew!”

However, locating snakes on 25,000 acres can be tricky – perhaps likened to searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Our long-time mentor in snake locating is a Denver Zoo reptile keeper, as well as rattlesnake researcher, who can find a snake with the ease of a professional, a level we hope to achieve.

Where We’ve Seen them

In the past, we have spotted snakes on top of Miller Butte, thermoregulating across roads, swimming in creeks, and hiding in sidewalk cracks and under steps. Now, scouring the Refuge, we flip rocks, turn logs, lift tarps, and trudge through thick vegetation in our search.

Because snakes have yet to be surveyed on the Refuge, no precedent is set for their documentation. Consequently, we outline our search area on a map and record date and findings in a comment section. Finding nothing is as important to record as our successes, according to our biologist, as is recording any dead serpents.

While the wandering gartersnake can often be found at a distance from water, the valley gartersnake is more likely to be found near water and is believed to have declined in population over the years.


We hope to encounter each of these species. But, despite the warning from our friend, we won’t keep our distance!

Wandering Gartersnake


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