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Posted 3/16/2016

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By Thomas Mills

Walk into the lobby of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Skiatook Lake Office and you’ll be greeted by an angry sounding doorman.  The doorkeeper, a rather anxious prairie rattlesnake buzzing its tail within the security of a locked terrarium, isn’t so much angry as it is scared.

“It’s just a defense mechanism rattlesnakes have,” said Ranger Greg Bersche, the resident expert on the snakes at Skiatook.  “It’s not so much a threat, it’s just to let potential predators know they are there and basically a message to avoid them so they won’t get trampled or killed.”

The prairie rattlesnake in the lobby, along with a timber rattlesnake, a copperhead, a cottonmouth and a corn snake, are all part of the Skiatook Lake Office Nature Center.

The program started more than 20 years ago, said Bersche, to generate interest in the nature found on Corps land while also giving the rangers an opportunity to talk about other subjects, such as water safety.

The snakes were a hit, said Bersche, and started a tradition of keeping several in the lobby.

“We’ve had a variety of snakes,” he said.  “We try to keep them awhile and then release them back into the wild and rotate them through.”

As the recreation season heats up, more people will encounter snakes on Corps land.  Before you kill a snake, said Bersche, you should understand that snakes have a benefit in the wild.

“They really keep the rodent population under control,” he said.  He also pointed out that not all snakes are dangerous to humans.

“Of the 46 species of snakes we have in this state only seven species are actually venomous,” said Bersche. “So the majority of snakes that people encounter on Corps land are not venomous, and a lot of times we tend to kill them without identifying them.”

According to Bersche, all of the poisonous snakes in Oklahoma are pit vipers.  Pit vipers are distinguished by what’s called a loreal pit between their eye and nostril, as well as elliptical pupils.

Where you’ll find them depends on the species, he said.  Copperhead snakes like shady areas and often hide under things like leaves, and in woodpiles.  Rattlesnakes will be found in more open areas.

As you walk into the lake office you’ll see this in action.  The rattlesnakes often lay out in the open in the terrarium, enjoying the sun from the glass door, while the copperhead stays hidden under a piece of wood.  To one side the cottonmouth is in its own terrarium because, according to Bersche, he doesn’t want it to kill and eat the other snakes.

Although snakes are frightening predators to many people, just giving them a wide berth will be enough to stay safe, said Bersche, because if they do strike they can reach out to only about two-thirds of their body length. 

If you’re going to Skiatook Lake this recreation season stop by the lake office, Bersche said, and you will be welcomed.  “Come out and enjoy the lake, be safe around the water and visit the nature center,” he said.

When people do, they shouldn’t be put off by the timber rattlesnake in the lobby, because it won’t hurt them.  “Not unless they open the door to the cage,” Bersche said, smiling.