Surveying Snakes on The Refuge

Surveying Snakes on The Refuge

GUEST BLOG: The Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation asked our friends and fellow Nature Mappers, Betty and Chuck Mulcahy to share a bit with us about their current volunteer work at the National Elk Refuge. Betty and Chuck do a lot to educate the public about the wonders of snakes and demystify their wicked reputation. Don’t be afraid, read on and learn about our serpent friends:

“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.

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.

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 found more often near water and is believed to have declined in population over the years.

We hope to encounter each of these species!

̶ Betty and Chuck Mulcahy



To keep up-to-date on Betty and Chuck’s survey and other adventures you can follow along via their blog Have Snakes Will Travel: The Unconventional Lives of Volunteer Naturalists.

For more detailed information including photographs on the three snake species found in Teton County, WY visit the following links:

  • Northern Rubber BoaCharina bottae – looks like a fake rubber snake, with its lack of distinctive head or tail or any markings. In Wyoming, it is found only in the mountainous northwestern region.
  • Wandering GartersnakeThamnophis elegans vagrans – is by far the most common gartersnake in Teton County and ranges across the state. The body background color varies from brown to olive, and the stripes and markings can vary in intensity, but it will not have red.
  • The Valley GartersnakeThamnophis elegans fitchi – has a very limited range in Wyoming: the very western edge of Teton and Lincoln Counties. It is distinctive from the Wandering Gartersnake by its red accents.



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