Last seen more than a decade ago, the Western diamondback rattlesnake still might be present and reproducing in the Horsethief Canyon area near Kanopolis Lake.
“It was a tiny baby, which means they are reproducing,” said Ryan Forkell, a Manhattan snake enthusiast who posted two photos on a herpetology Facebook list of the rattlesnake he captured Sunday not far from Horsethief Trail at Kanopolis State Park.
Western diamondback rattlesnakes are not indigenous to Kansas, but at least eight were collected and removed from the park between 1991 — when they were first discovered — and 2003. It’s believed the snakes were intentionally released in the area, perhaps by someone from Oklahoma.
All along, herpetologists and naturalists have breathed a sigh of relief because they didn’t think the snakes were reproducing given only adult snakes had been found.
Sunday’s discovery might change all that, and is sure to prompt snake enthusiasts to scour the terrain near where Forkell made his discovery.
He pulled the Facebook posting soon after it was posted, which started drawing a number of responses.
“Not sure if it qualifies,” he said of the snake. “Lots of people are doubting it because I don’t have evidence of where I was at, other than my word. I have pics (pictures) of the snake, but not with habitat in the background, and didn’t keep the snake.”
He provided two photos of the snake to The Hays Daily News through an online chat, even though he remained reluctant to discuss the discovery.
One of the photos shows Forkell holding the young snake, which appears to be approximately 7 inches long.
The posting drew swift responses, including a call to kill off the nonresident population out of fear for the effect it might have on the local environment, as well as the threat it poses to people.
Western diamondback rattlesnakes, said Travis Taggart, a Hays resident and president and executive director of the Center for North American Herpetology, are a danger because they can be aggressive and they are big compared to Kansas rattlesnakes.
He said there are a few reports of prairie rattlesnakes in the area, but massasauga rattlesnakes are the more predominant variety.
Western diamondbacks, he said, can deliver bigger doses of a more toxic venom. The bites also can’t be treated with the same anti-venom used with Kansas rattlesnakes.
Taggart is taking something of a wait-and-see approach to the discovery, confident searchers will scour the area to confirm the find. Taggart only knows Forkell through Facebook.
“We’ve never found young snakes out there,” Taggart said of the Western diamondbacks. “We’ve found adults there.”
It’s still possible, he said, the snake still might not be producing, if, for example, someone released an already pregnant snake in the area.
“This place has been herped a lot over the last 50 years,” Taggart said of the searches by herpetologists.
Taggart isn’t overly concerned about the snakes effect on the environment because its diet likely would consist of the relatively abundant kangaroo rat.
Fellow herpetologist Curtis Schmidt, however, rails at the notion of a non-native snake remaining in the area. He’s also concerned about safety.
Any effect from a non-native species might not become apparent for some time, he said. He pointed to Florida as an example of adverse reaction from non-native species, where 80 percent of the wildlife is not native.
Burmese pythons, for example, have been a big concern in Florida, and state and federal wildlife agencies are working to reduce their numbers.
“We don’t know what is going to go on with the Western diamondback,” Schmidt said of its effect on the environment.
That’s why Schmidt is urging the snake’s removal. But he’s concerned about the safety of anyone trying to do so.
Someone comfortable with handling a venomous snake could remove it alive, he said, while those unfamiliar with the process are best to leave the snake alone.
“The safest way to remove it is to kill it,” he said.
Even then, caution is necessary, as venom still can be delivered from a dead snake.