Jan Roth: Jack Rabbit Road and the mystery snake
February 27, 2015
My name is Jan Roth. Many of you may know me, but most of you don't, so an introduction may be in order. I decided to call this column Jack Rabbit Road, partly because it involves Native American folklore, but also because it's where I live. Most folks call it County Road 17, north of Lay, near the old stagecoach road.
For this particular column, I want to talk about some specific reptiles. The topic began when we discovered and published information on the Hognosed snake in Moffat County. We had talked to various people near Maybell, Sand Wash and Elk Springs. There was little doubt that the snake existed, until Deputy Sheriff Bruce Johnson confirmed the story by finding a female snake on the highway, 15 miles west of Maybell.
The fun part was that Bruce put it in a bag in his patrol car, and it took a couple of hours to find it again. Bruce did not like snakes. Most people don't like snakes, but most of these reptiles are pretty harmless even the rattlesnakes. I've sat in or close to dens, and they all would avoid me until they found a path to safety.
Don't get me wrong! If you threaten them, step on them, or abuse them, they will bite. Watch where you're walking and listen for their buzz. They shed about three times a year and are blind during the process.
This story is not about rattlesnakes, however, or any of the other common snakes. This story is about a 30 to 45inch black snake that lives here. It is rare and nobody knows which species it is — yet! As with any scientific hypothesis you develop a theory based on known facts, data, and you develop a research plan.
This theory begins with a story from a fellow I met near Savory, Wyoming in 1987, who met a big black snake along the Little Snake, in a wild rose patch by the river in 1950. He asked me what it was and, I didn't know. The only snakes fitting that description are the king snakes, the northern water snake, some unusually large garter snake, or a new species.
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We decided it might be a new species, maybe a migrant, or some snake from Eastern Wyoming or Northern Colorado. We do know many migrants, including those who came through Wyoming's South Pass and moved west. This is probably the path taken by our large prairie rattlesnake (crotalus viridis) and the Hognose (Heterdon naciscus). Some folks think our Hognose came in hay bales hauled to feed livestock in bad winters. It's possible, but I doubt it. Early reports of the Hognose snake goes back to the 30s and 40s, as does the unknown black snake.
We have one report of the black snake from Savory, one from Brown's Park (1986), two from just north of Meeker (1988), two reports from Craig (Jan Roth 1996 and 1998), one from White River near Sombrero Ranch (Derry Roth 2014), and one report from Jack Rabbit Road (Jan Roth 2014) near Lay. The best report comes from Derry. He walked out onto his second story porch and was having coffee when he noticed a big old black snake with faint yellow dots along his side, coiled in his driveway. He was so excited when he called me, and told me he had not seen a snake like this ever! I asked him to catch it and when he tried, the snake hit the grass and trees like a race car. He never saw it again, but it sounds like a Black Racer or something new.
The species we're looking for appears to prefer Oak brush and serviceberry ecozones close to creeks or running water between 6,500 and 7,500 feet in elevation. The ones I've seen are very fast like a racer (so far) not aggressive. One of the reasons I don't believe it's a northern water snake is because that species will bite and be aggressive. Our snake is a pacifist and moves away with speed.
So, while you are out and about this spring and summer during calving or lambing time, or if you're just enjoying the backcountry, keep a look out for anything unusual.
Sundance is getting its salvage permit again and we will preserve the animal for the research reserves and publish on it, if it's a rarity, or entirely new. If it's a new species, even a sub species, whoever finds this animal gets to name it. If it is an established species, you will be a co-author on the paper, which recognizes an incredible range extension.
My number is 970-629-8444. Have fun while you travel Jack Rabbit Road.