Once again, the Shawnee National Forest will be closing a road to mechanical vehicles.
But on foot or by slither, Snake Road in the National Forest should be busy with snakes and amphibians migrating from limestone bluffs to a nearby swamp, and will be closed from March 15 through May 15. The road closes every year to reduce the mortality rate of endangered species that live in the area, said Rick Essner, an associate professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
"A lot of people have this misconception that it’s going to be like Indiana Jones with snakes crawling all over the ground, and it’s not like that," Essner said.
There are snakes, including the endangered Mississippi green water snake, but people walking on the road are unlikely to step on any. Essner said the area is open, and the snakes will cross the road, but will also be moving nearby. Look for that movement, but look for other wildlife, too, he said. Snakes are also likely to be "basking, or hanging out in a shrub."
The U.S. Forest Service closes the road to accommodate migration of reptiles, amphibians and, most famously, the snakes of the area during the fall and spring migrations. Shawnee National Forest says about 65 percent of amphibians and about 60 percent of reptiles in Illinois are found in that area. Some of them are on threatened or endangered lists.
The snake migration route has been protected since 1972 to protect the snakes, but it wasn't until Scott Ballard did post-graduate work on studying the snakes that he persuaded the Forest Service to extend the length of the protection from three weeks to two months.
Keeping the road closed is "significant" said Ballard, now an herptologits with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. He said 25 percent of man-caused snake death is from vehicles; the rest is direct killing and habitat destruction.
"Snakes craw up on the asphalt for heat, it creates a 'hot rock' for them," he said. "Biannual closing really saved a lot of snakes.."
The best time to see the snakes moving is in the fall, he said, but the best time in the spring is the second or third week in PAril.
"All depends on if Mother Nature is going to give us an early spring, or a late spring," Ballard said.
Snakes are more active after the day has warmed a bit, Essner said.
"In the morning they're sluggish because it's cooler ... probably later (in the day) is better than earlier to see more snakes."
There are venomous snakes in the area: the timber rattlesnake, the cottonmouth and the copperhead.
None of those are a water moccasin he said.
"That's not an herpetological term," Essner said. "It's applied as basically all water snakes. The appropriate term is cottonmouth, and there are no cottonmouths in the metro-east area, they're more to the south," including those at Shawnee.
Water snakes "tend to be a little more bitey when you pick them up," which he does not recommend doing.
"For the general public, I would just observe them," Essner said.
Ballard was quick to extoll the virtues of snakes, a mission he's had since he was 10 and lobbied his Dad, who thought the only good snake was a dead one, to let him keep a snake.
"For me, I had allergies to animal dander growing up… and you can’t hold a fish, at least not for very long. I opted for reptiles," Ballard said.
"They're really not bad animals. One average snake can eat a pillowcase full of mice and rats a year," or about nine pounds of rodent, he said. Also, snakes do not transmit diseases to humans, and they feed once a week instead of twice a day like a dog.
Ballard said no one knows the number of snakes in the LaRue-Pine Hills area of the National Forest, but there's plenty to see along the road.
"Unless it's a really, really bad day, you['re going to at least see a cottonmouth," Ballard said.