The Road Less Traveled
BY GRETCHEN MOMINEE
When people hear that part of Forest Service Road 345 in the La Rue-Pine Hills Research Natural Area closes for two months each spring and fall for a snake migration, many imagine a mass exodus of snakes, reminiscent of a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
DNR Natural Heritage Biologist Scott Ballard, who spent several years studying the reptiles and amphibians of this area for his master's thesis, was once contacted by someone from National Geographic interested in photos of the snake-covered road. Another time, a representative of a television station in Japan called him for migration dates so it could send film crews. Both media outlets lost interest when Ballard explained that the migration is a gradual process.
According to Ballard, it would be impressive to see 20 snakes if you walked from one end of the road to the other during the migration. The reality is that many snakes cross the 2.6-mile section of road separating their summer habitat in La Rue Swamp and Winters Pond from their hibernation dens along the bluffs of the Pine Hills. It's just that they aren't all crossing the road at the same time. Even a careful observer might miss many snakes, since most usually attempt to hide, remain motionless or escape when they feel vibrations alerting them to the approach of something large.
Although the north end of La Rue-Pine Hills lower road is gated and closed to vehicles, foot traffic is welcomed. (Photo by Scott Ballard.)
The timber rattlesnake, a state-threatened species, is one of the three venomous snakes found in this area. The eastern massasauga is the only venomous snake occurring in Illinois that has not been documented in the Pine Hills area.
A juvenile cottonmouth. DNR Natural Heritage Biologist Scott Ballard found this snake at a hibernating den and estimated it to be about two weeks old. The tip of the tail is yellow in juveniles and is used as a lure to attract small frogs.
The southern copperhead is another of the three venomous species occurring here; however, copperheads and timber rattlesnakes are far less common than cottonmouths in the LaRue-Pine Hills area.
A brightly colored western ribbon snake crosses "Snake Road." (Snake photos by Gretchen Mominee)
During his research, Ballard saw a total of 516 cottonmouths, making it the most frequently seen snake in the area. The majority were observed on or near the road during migration. Although cottonmouths are venomous and have a bad reputation, Ballard said they are not aggressive.
"They are non-confrontational," he said. "They are defensive and may bite if stepped on, cornered or handled, but I've been in den areas with cottonmouths, and they mostly try to hide under rocks."
Like many snakes, a cottonmouth often will coil, release musk or vibrate its tail when disturbed. But in an act unique to its species, the snake will "gape" when threatened, displaying the mouth's white lining, hence the name cotton-mouth. Generally, the snake will retreat as soon as it no longer feels threatened.
The road closure protects many species besides the migrating cottonmouths, since 56 of the 102 species of reptiles and amphibians known to inhabit the state of Illinois have been documented here. During his research, Ballard saw two state-threatened species, 44 Mississippi green water snakes, 23 of which were seen on Forest Ser-
Since 1972, a portion of Forest Service Road in the Shawnee National Forest has been closed to vehicular traffic each spring and fall in conjuction with a snake migration. (Photo by Scott Ballard.)
DNR Natural Heritage Biologist Scott Ballard holds a speckled king snake he picked up after it crossed the road. (Photo by Gretchen Mominee)
vice Road 345, and nine timber rattlesnakes, seven of which were on the road. Ballard's thesis stated that there were approximately 650 amphibians and 258 reptiles on the road—this amounts to 19 percent of all amphibians and 22 percent of all reptiles observed in the La Rue-Pine Hills/Otter Pond Research Natural Area.
The closing of the road has not been without opposition. Forest Service Biologist Steve Widowski said some people argue that because part of the road is considered a county road, it should remain open for public use. He pointed out that some sportsmen have expressed discontent with the closing because it becomes necessary to walk beyond the gates to hunt or fish. Widowski says it is possible, but difficult, to navigate a boat to La Rue Swamp through Winters Pond, which is accessible during migration.
According to Robert Winters, supervisory recreation technician for the Forest Service, much of the opposition arose when the Forest Service initially began closing the road in 1972. Additional protest occurred several years later when the road closing dates were extended from three weeks to two months each migration cycle, based on Ballard's research.
Winters, who has been involved with management of the area for more than 20 years agreed that a few sportsmen have been unhappy with the closing.
"Overall, though, I find the hunters and fishermen to be very conscientious, helpful and careful to follow the rules because they appreciate being allowed to hunt and fish in the national forest," he said. "Some hunters don't mind the closing because it gives the ducks a chance to adjust to the area while there is minimal disturbance, and the road reopens just before waterfowl season begins each fall.
"The closing reaches good middle ground," Winters continued. "It doesn't lock hunters out for duck season. I think most people feel that as long as it isn't overly restrictive, it's understandable."
Winters said that the Forest Service will continue to close the road based on the positive impact on snakes and other wildlife.
Although cottonmouths and other snakes are not considered glamourous and are feared by most people, they are a necessary part of the ecosystem and help preserve the natural balance. As predators, snakes keep the populations of rodents in check, and they are prey to animals like large birds and raccoons. Without snakes, the ecosystem would be incomplete.
Unfortunately, the area's diversity of species has made it a target for poachers. It is illegal to collect animals from the area, but people still take bright or attractive specimens, such as speckled king snakes, western ribbon snakes, red milk snakes and green tree frogs to keep as pets or profit from illegal sales to pet stores.
The Forest Service works in cooperation with DNR conservation police to catch and prosecute poach Those caught may be arrested subject to a fine $2,500 and jail time.
Most herpetology enthusiasts who visit the area are just as conscientious as sportsmen and intend only to observe in the hope of spotting some unusual species. A walk down "Snake Road" during migration won't yield a road full of snakes, but the experience is rewarding enough for most visitors, some of whom travel great distances. The La Rue-Pine Hills Research Natural Area, one of the most diverse areas in the state, offers those who are adventurous and interested an excellent opportunity to glimpse southern Illinois' unique reptilian inhabitants.
Gretchen Mominee is a freelance writer from Indiana who traveled to the Shawnee National Forest to experience firsthand the snake migration and to meet with DNR's Scott Ballard.