Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Rattlesnake bites dog near Hailey

Hikers report several rattler sightings on Lambís Gulch Trail

Express Staff Writer

This Western rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) was photographed in Croy Canyon last summer by amateur herpetologist Alan Rickers. Photo by

A group of hikers encountered two rattlesnakes Sunday afternoon while walking their dogs on the Lamb's Gulch Trail west of Hailey, one of which bit one of the canines. A Labrador-poodle-mix named Saba, belonging to Hailey resident Richard Wiethorn, was reportedly bitten on the leg as it trotted past a rattlesnake lying in the trail.

Saba was carried three-quarters of a mile to a car. While returning to the car, another member of the hiking party stepped on another rattlesnake coiled in the trail.

"It was crazy," said Lisa Bagwell, of Bend, Ore., after returning to Hailey. "We didn't expect to see another one on the trail we had just walked."

Bagwell was not bitten, but Saba spent the night at Sawtooth Animal Center in Bellevue on antibiotics and pain medication before being released on Monday morning to its owners.

Veterinarian Mark Acker said Tuesday that Saba is expected to make a full recovery after a few more days with a swollen leg.

"We usually see about ten rattlesnake bites on dogs each summer," said Acker, who advises a snake venom vaccine for dogs who are routinely taken to rattlesnake exposure areas.

"If the dogs get to the clinic quickly, they usually do pretty well. We have had only two dogs die from rattlesnake bites that I know of."

Acker said that Croy Canyon west of Hailey is known for having many rattlesnakes. Croy Canyon has several trail areas, including Rock Creek, Bullion Creek, and Democrat Gulch. Democrat Gulch Road is the closest to Hailey and begins at Croy Canyon Road two miles west of town. It leads several miles northward to different popular hiking and mountain biking trails, including Lamb's Gulch.

Lamb's Gulch Trail is a challenging four-mile loop, which begins about a mile up Democrat Gulch Road on the right. It traverses a creek and follows a dirt road before rising on rocky switchbacks to a summit marked by large rock cairns. The trail then descends sharply once more to reconnect with Democrat Gulch Road. Wiethorn's dog, Saba, was bitten at the northern end of Lamb's Gulch Trail in thick brush along a creek.

Carol Knight, owner of The Toy Store in Ketchum and Hailey, was riding a mountain bike on the southern end of Lamb's Gulch Trail when Saba was bitten on Sunday. She encountered a rattlesnake near a spring about a mile from Democrat Road, before the two-lane trail turns to single-track.

"I've always been scared to death of snakes," Knight said. "But I have a girlfriend from Texas who I ride with who told me 'not to worry, they will let you know they are there'. I heard the noise and looked down and it was there, about two feet from me."

Knight passed the snake by, as many hikers and bikers do out Lamb's Gulch.

"It's where they live," she said.

The Western rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) is the only venomous snake in Idaho. The snakes can reach lengths of 5 feet or more, and are most active during the day. They make a distinctive rattling sound when approached or threatened. Rattlesnakes strike very quickly and can reach a distance of up to two-thirds of their body length.

Although the Western rattlesnake's range reaches altitudes of 11,000 feet, Acker said he has only heard reports of their regional presence as far north as Hulen Meadows, near Ketchum.

Amateur herpetologist and 35-year Wood River Valley resident Alan Rickers has tracked and photographed rattlesnakes in Democrat Canyon and Lamb's Gulch for many years. He happened to be hiking on Democrat Gulch Road the same day Saba was bitten. Rickers said he counted 11 snake tracks that day across Democrat Gulch Road, which separates a series of beaver ponds to the west from dry, craggy sagebrush steppe to the east.

"I know of three dens in Croy Canyon," he said. "I once spotted 90 snakes near one of these dens in an hour and half. They are a part of the natural web. Hopefully, there is room for both people and rattlesnakes. Some of the snakes are gentle and others are pretty wild. Unfortunately, with increased development, the people usually win and the snakes are killed."

Rickers said that rattlesnakes co-exist in Democrat Canyon with blue racer snakes, gopher snakes and rubber boas, feeding mainly on rodents. The rattlers often fall prey themselves to red-tail hawks, which can often be heard screeching in the canyon.

"Because of the rattlesnakes, Democrat Gulch and Lamb's Gulch in particular are about the worst place in the area to take your dog for a walk," said Rickers. "Right now they are coming out of their dens and dispersing."

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, about 8,000 people a year receive venomous snakebites in the United States, and only nine to 15 victims die.

St Luke's Wood River Medical Center emergency room physician Keith Sivertson said that—on average—only one person per year is bitten in Blaine County.

Anti-venom is expensive, but it is available at the hospital," he said. "Anyone who thinks they have been bitten should get to a hospital. No first-aid efforts have proven to be effective over the long run."

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