On this federal road, snakes get the right of way

Thursday, October 23, 2003

WOLF LAKE, Ill. -- It was a mighty privileged water snake that made its way across the road here, slowly slithering to its winter den from the swamp where it spent the summer.

While its snake cousins everywhere else risk ending up dead on roads, this Mississippi green snake -- on the state's threatened-species list -- could take its time.

On this U.S. Forest Service lane in far southwestern Illinois, anything that crawls gets the road to itself twice a year during migration season.

Federal officials say it is the only road the government owns that's closed to vehicle traffic in order to protect reptiles and amphibians.

"Had a car come by just then, that would have been one fewer female green snakes," said state herpetologist Scott Ballard, as he stepped over the foot-long juvenile and continued his walk along the leaf-covered road.

"It's reasons like that we need to close the road to cars," said Ballard, who works for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The area is a snake paradise. The relatively warm climate of far southern Illinois beckons species usually found in the deep South, Ballard said, like the salmon-and-black colored mud snake and green tree frog -- tiny creatures that hop across the road every few minutes.

It's also home to more than half of the 102 species of reptiles and amphibians in the state, more than any other spot in Illinois, Ballard said.

The U.S. Forest Service first started closing its Road No. 345, otherwise known as LaRue Road, for a few weeks in the spring and fall nearly 30 years ago.

It's been closed since Sept. 1 this year, and is scheduled to reopen Oct. 31. The road is also closed every March 15 to May 15.

Karen Ballance, 37, who has lived at one end of LaRue Road, outside the closed section, for the past year said doesn't oppose closing the road, but like others who live in this patch of rugged bottomland, she has little patience for things that slither.

"One snake was lying here on my driveway," said Ballance, standing outside her small frame house. "His head popped up, so I got a shovel and took it off for him."

Such talk upsets snake lover Mike Dloogatch of Chicago, one of hundreds of reptile and amphibian fans who travel to LaRue Road each year to view the migration.

"It's an amazing place," said Dloogatch, 61, who keeps a dozen snakes in his basement and has visited the road annually for most of the past 40 years.

"I see things you never see in the wild," he said, like the time he caught a couple of male snakes "entwined, doing the mating fight," he said. "There's no place like it."

On the Net:

Illinois Department of Natural Resources: http://dnr.state.il.us/

U.S. Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/

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