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Signs of snakes: Report of rattlesnake on Mount Jumbo prompts officials to post warnings
By PERRY BACKUS of the Missoulian

Whether rattlesnakes actually inhabit Mount Jumbo is in question, but the city posted warnings as a precautionary step after receiving a report of one being spotted on the hillside. Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

Are there rattlesnakes in the Rattlesnake?

Hikers heading up Mount Jumbo may be watching their step these days, after passing signs on a pair of popular trails warning of the potential of venomous vipers lurking underfoot.

City officials want people to know there’s certainly no reason to panic.

The Cherry and Poplar streets trailheads to Mount Jumbo’s “L? were posted recently after the city received a report of a rattlesnake being spotted on the hillside.

“Right now, we don’t have any confirmation of any rattlesnakes in the Rattlesnake,? said Donna Gaukler, Missoula Parks and Recreation director. “It could have been a bull snake. They look a lot alike.?

This isn’t the first time the city has received reports of rattlesnakes slithering around Missoula’s popular conservation lands. Verifying the sightings has been another matter.

“We decided it was better to be safe than sorry,? said Morgan Valliant, the city’s conservation lands manager. “You certainly would think there’s a chance of seeing a rattlesnake in the Rattlesnake Valley.?

There have been plenty of verified sightings of rattlesnakes in the surrounding area, said Bryce Maxell, the Montana Natural Heritage Program’s senior zoologist.

“They can easily travel over 10 kilometers from their den sites to their summer foraging areas,? Maxell said. “Once they get into an area with plenty of rodent sign, they’ll hang right in there.?

Back in the 1970s, Maxell said he knew of a rattlesnake den near the Marshall Creek drainage. A Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist has seen a couple near Marshall Ski Area since then.

Just because people aren’t seeing them all the time doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not there.

“They are pretty secretive,? Maxell said. “People walk right by snakes all the time and never even know they’re there.?

When people or their dogs do happen to spot a snake putting on a show, it might be a rattlesnake imposter.

“When threatened, bull snakes can put on quite an aggressive display,? Maxell said. “They have the ability to compress their skulls and flatten their heads out in a triangle that mimics a rattlesnake. And they’ll hiss loudly.?

Bull snakes are Montana’s largest snake. Sometimes called gopher snakes, some grow as long as 8 feet. They are not poisonous.

“People see these big animals and they’re actively aggressive,? Maxell said. “It’s easy for them to be mistaken for a rattlesnake.?

The best thing people can do if they do happen to cross paths with either variety of snake is just leave it alone, Valliant said.

“People just need to realize that our conservation lands are home to a lot of different creatures. There are some that will bite or strike you if you’re not careful,? Valliant said. “That’s not a bad thing. Those lands are good habitat for a lot more than whitetail deer.?

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 523-5259 or at pbackus@missoulian.com.

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