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Panhandle Passages: One for the Snakes

A garter snake rests on the white soil of the Oglala National Grassland. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)
A garter snake rests on the light-colored soil of the Oglala National Grassland. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

After visiting with a Chadron community service organization last week, I wrapped up the presentation with a slideshow of wildlife photos from western Nebraska and moved on to questions.

One question kind of caught me off-guard. A friend in the audience asked why I hadn’t included any photos of snakes. I didn’t even realize that I had not given any time to reptiles, but he was right. I was certainly guilty of favoring other classes above reptiles. Mammals, birds, amphibians and invertebrates were given a spot in the show, but no snakes.

I guess I don’t have as many photos of snakes as I do of other creatures. One reason may be that they aren’t all that active when I’m most often out with the camera. The soft light of early morning and late day is ideal for photos of the many furry and feathered crepuscular animals, but doesn’t generate the heat to get cold-blooded reptiles moving. And, I suppose, the photos I do have of snakes didn’t make the cut in my effort to be a people-pleaser. Let’s face it, while snakes do have a following of die-hard fans most folks don’t find them to be as charismatic as mammals and birds. Many think they’re downright creepy.

As a happy coincidence the day following the presentation, I was pleased to meet a snake during a sunrise hike in the Oglala National Grassland. The garter snake, a member of a species that is common almost everywhere in the United States, was resting near a watering hole in the mix of badlands and prairie grasses that define the region. With the cool of the morning, the snake wasn’t moving too quickly so I had the opportunity to get close with a macro lens without it slithering away. It was relatively cooperative throughout the shoot and I came back with a few fun photos. Again, only a garter snake, but a fine-looking critter. Charismatic even.

I certainly won’t discredit anyone for being scared of snakes. The fact that they are drawn to dark places to retreat from the heat sometimes makes them appear when people are feeling at their most vulnerable. And, it doesn’t help that snakes have often been portrayed the villain in the media, literature, religion, mythology and folk tales.

A bull snake catches sun on the Niobrara River Road in Sioux County. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)
A bull snake catches sun on the Niobrara River Road in Sioux County. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

I have a history with snakes. When I was a child in southwestern Nebraska, my grandfather garnered quite a bit of ink in newspapers for hosting an annual rattlesnake contest for the patrons of his gas station in Danbury. Prizes were offered as bounty for the biggest and most rattles brought into the office. As a kid, I remember at least one customer bringing in a live rattler to add some shock value to the contest. Also, a pet hog-nosed snake kept me entertained in my youth, as did a pet ball python when I was in college.

Despite that history, I still don’t know if you’d call me a huge fan of snakes. I love to see them in the wild, but I’m just as likely as the next person to jump toward the treetops when stumbling upon one in the grass. I don’t have much desire to handle them. Even though a garter snake in the hand is probably less likely to bite than, say, a squirrel, it ranks pretty low on my scale of cuddle value.

The snake uses its forked tongue, which many snake-haters find disturbing, to sense chemicals in the air and gain clues of the presence of predators and prey. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)
The snake uses its forked tongue, which many snake-haters find disturbing, to sense chemicals in the air and gain clues of the presence of predators and prey. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

But, as with so many animals, snakes are misunderstood – not the least of which are the snakes of the High Plains. Sure, we might not want rattlesnakes to be in a place with a lot of human or pet foot traffic and certainly not where kids are often at play. When it comes to most cases, though, think about it: Snakes don’t make much noise unless they’re trying to warn you, they don’t dig in your yard, and they don’t chew on anything or eat your garden plants. Pretty much the peak of their activity is moving quietly in search of a meal of insects or rodents – perhaps the same insects and rodents you are spending money to kill. They don’t seek and attack people. They resort to biting only when stepped on or when they’re cornered. Even though a bite from a rattlesnake can be deadly, far more people die from certain insect bites. Furthermore, I’ve yet to hear widespread complaints of worldly possessions being soiled by snake poop.

Charismatic? That’s debatable. Useful and well-behaved? In most cases, I’d say so.

So, what will you do? The next time one of our serpentine neighbors makes your body jump and your pulse spike, will you grab the spade and go for its head? Or will you reward it by sparing its life? After all, it’s probably been busy doing you some favors that deserve a return.

As for me, I’ll most likely let it slither away after a photo or 10. And you can bet the next time I present a slideshow of wildlife photos, a snake or two will be included there, too.

About Justin Haag

Justin Haag has served the Commission as a public information officer in the Panhandle since 2013. His duties include serving as regional editor for NEBRASKAland Magazine. Haag was raised in southwestern Nebraska, where he developed a love for fishing, hunting and other outdoor pursuits. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chadron State College in 1996, he worked four years as an editor and reporter at newspapers in Chadron and McCook. Prior to joining the Commission in 2013, he worked 12 years as a communicator at Chadron State, serving as the institution’s media and public relations coordinator the last five. He and his wife, Cricket, live in Chadron, and have two children.

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