Most late spring and summer nights, Adrian Slade and Wendy Shaw cruise the back roads of Kittitas County near the Columbia River in Slade’s Subaru SUV.
They’re not out to enjoy the basalt rock formations, the sunsets or the view of the Columbia as it rolls toward Wanapum Dam.
Instead, their attention is laser-focused on the road immediately in front, scanning it for snakes that are trying to get across the road as they go to or from food sources.
Armed with a snake hook, windshield cleaner and a collection of buckets and coolers, the Ellensburg women are on a mission to keep as many rattlesnakes and other slithering creatures as possible from becoming roadkill.
“It’s not a pleasant activity anymore,” said Slade, sipping an energy drink while scanning the road for signs of a snake.
Instead, it is more of a duty to protect a misunderstood animal that plays an important role in the ecosystem.
Some nights, the duo can find dozens of snakes on the road; other nights, they’re lucky if they find one or two, depending on the weather.
It’s a mission that sometimes puts them in danger – Slade had a car totalled while stopping for a snake in the road – as well as at odds with people who view snakes as pests to be killed with impunity.
The pair started on their mission in 2015, after first going out on a couple of trips to see the various snakes in the hills of Kittitas County and the Columbia basin.
Slade, a biology student at Central Washington University, said they started out “road cruising,” where other snake watchers – which Shaw and Slade call “herpers” after the Greek word for reptiles – go out at night looking for snakes in the wild.
While most herpers do it just to see snakes in the same way bird-watchers seek out various avian species, the women saw something more alarming: Snakes killed by motor vehicles.
“We went out to see some night snakes, and we realized the carnage on the road,” said Shaw, who works at an Ellensburg computer company and volunteers with CWU’s snake lab.
That’s when they decided to help as many snakes as they could get across the road.
That first season, they rescued 400 snakes from roadways, varying from busy highways to chip-sealed back roads. Shaw asked that the specific roadways not be identified, as people may go out and kill the snakes they find there instead of helping them.
Slade also kept track of dead snakes, being able to present research showing how deadly the region’s roads were. One road, she said, had a 75 percent mortality rate for snakes.
The most common snakes found in the area are the Northern Pacific rattlesnake – Washington’s only venomous snake – the Great Basin gopher snake and the rubber boa.
On a typical patrol, the women will drive through an area several times, watching for the signs of snakes in the road. It’s harder than it sounds, they say. Snakes in their infancy and adolescent stages can look just like sticks or strands of hay dropped by the numerous hay trucks that travel the area.
And when the sun is low in the sky, the tar-sealed cracks on the road can resemble a snake trying to cross.
One common misconception, the women say, is that snakes go to the road to bask in the warmth of the asphalt and energize themselves. In reality, the snakes are in search of food and water.
When a threat is near, a snake’s usual response is to freeze so it does not get noticed by a hawk or other predator. It’s a strategy that does not protect it from cars speeding down the road, Slade said.
Likewise, larger snakes are more likely to be run over, as a smaller one has a better chance of having the car pass harmlessly.
“It’s a reverse natural selection,” Slade said, noting that larger snakes are usually the ones that survive best in the wild.
When they do spot a snake in the road, Slade quickly stops the car and she and Shaw get out to rescue the snake. Usually that’s just using the snake hook to support the animal’s front end while holding the tail and carrying it to a safe spot in the direction it was heading.
If it’s a baby snake, they use a carrier made from a plastic bottle and a chair spindle to scoop the baby up and carry it to safety.
If a snake is taken back to the side it came from, it will only go back out onto the road again, Shaw said. Likewise, snakes can’t be moved more than a mile from where they were found, as it would put them too far from their homes and they likely will die trying to get back to their den.
Rushing out like that does pose some dangers for the women, especially on highways. Slade said she stopped to rescue a snake and was hit from behind by another driver who was not paying attention.
The crash totalled her vehicle and left her with some neck pain. As she left the accident scene, she said, a snake slithered across the road through the shattered glass of her vehicle’s former back window.
In another incident, Slade stopped the car and was confronted by another driver who thought she was road raging. The other driver backed off when he saw Slade was picking up a snake.
So far, none of the snakes have bit them, although Slade did get a “bluff strike” on her hand as she was dodging an oncoming car while carrying the snake across the road.
“People think, ‘I wouldn’t be that brave’ (to run into traffic to save a snake), but you don’t think about it,” Shaw said.
But their work encounters opposition from people who view the snakes as either expendable creatures that can be killed for sport or as dangerous animals that need to be exterminated. Those attitudes infuriate Shaw.
“Why is his life any less valuable?” Shaw asked. “People like to think other species are less valuable.”
Snakes are a vital part of the ecosystem, she said. Rattlers and others eat mice, keeping the rodent population in check and reducing the spread of diseases such as hantavirus. While rattlesnakes are venomous, Shaw and other experts say the animals will not attack a human unless they’re provoked and have no other way to escape.
On some patrols, the women have been tailgated by people who object to their work, Shaw said, or have had people deliberately kill snakes and either arrange them in the road in patterns or wait by the side and throw them out in front as they drive by.
But she said they’ve also encountered people who have become allies, once they explain their mission and the benefits of keeping snakes alive. Some have offered to watch out for them as they work, and in one case a rather intimidating man “persuaded” a group of teens to leave the snake rescuers alone.
It’s a quest they plan to continue for some time, as they said they both worry about the snakes they could have saved if they weren’t out there.
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