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Rattling the West

Press Photo by Jennifer McBride Theodore Roosevelt National Park Ranger John Heiser removes a rattlesnake and releases it into an area off the road and away from travelers in Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit on Saturday.

Rattlesnakes will let people know they are too close for comfort.

The snake will shake its tail to warn predators and during these final summer days leading into fall, snakes are out on the landscape attempting to get as much sunlight as possible.

"This time of year, when you get the cooler nights, they start hanging out closer to their dens," said Steve Dyke, North Dakota Game and Fish Department conservation supervisor. "During the warmer parts of the day, they might start using rocks. Typically where I see them this time of year is the darker road beds."

The prairie rattlesnake is indigenous to the western part of North Dakota -- mainly the region south and west of the Missouri River including the Badlands.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park chief of interpretation Eileen Andes said rattlesnakes and people have mutual feelings.

"They don't want to see us anymore than we want to see them," she said. "The animals are not aggressive and rattlesnakes give us a warning in the form of a rattle that we are too close."

However, if a person does come across a rattlesnake, don't make any sudden movements or try to corner it.

"Don't even mess with them," Dickinson animal control officer Vern Nelson said. "Don't even try to go around it and just stand back about 20 feet."

Nelson said he hasn't had any calls about rattlesnakes since the '80s. He's seen one corn snake, a constrictor, wrapped around a girl's neck. The animal control officer also said he's had a couple calls about a bull snake, which looks similar to a rattlesnake.

"We've had bull snakes in town and everyone thought it was a rattler," Nelson said.

TRNP has seven species of snakes, but the only poisonous type is the rattlesnake. Andes said each animal has a specific place in nature as rattlesnakes take shelter in abandoned prairie dog holes and eat mice and other rodents.

"There's no way we would be able to count them," Andes said of the number of snakes in the park. "They hide in the grass, but we know they are common."

Andes doesn't want snakes to deter visitors from enjoying a day outside.

"Don't let fear of a rattlesnake stop you from enjoying a wonderful day or hike in the park," she said. "The chances that you will see one, even though there are a number of snakes out there, are actually quite small."