In November 2021, the Sedona Red Rock News reported on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designation of stretches of upper Oak Creek and the upper Verde River as critical habitat for the threatened narrow-headed gartersnake.

Well before that designation, the Red Rock Ranger District was actively monitoring snake populations and educating the public in support of this rare snake species. Snake training and education material is regularly provided for Oak Creek Canyon campground hosts, work crews and visitors. Field monitoring of the snakes is conducted under an agreement with Northern Arizona University.

Wildlife scientists and agencies are not leaving the snakes’ fate to nature and community education alone. When the Slide Fire burned in Oak Creek and West Fork Canyons in 2014, there was concern that watershed impacts, such as post-fire mud and silt runoff, would damage the habitat required by the snakes. Another concern was that the ash and sediment runoff after the fire would kill fish, which would cause the snakes to starve just before going into hibernation.

During the fire emergency, Northern Arizona University and Forest Service personnel and volunteers managed to gather eleven snakes in the canyon. These snakes were destined to be the foundation for a future captive breeding program at NAU. The program’s intent was to provide a secure environment where stresses and health risks to the snakes could be controlled, and breeding would be supported.

Between 2014, when the species was listed as threatened, and 2016, a vivarium was constructed under the direction of NAU Assistant Research Professor Dr. Erika Nowak to house the gartersnakes. The vivarium is a structure adapted to provide a semi-natural enclosure for the snakes. Knowledge gained from years of field study guided the enclosure design which simulates the snakes’ natural habitat.

Sterilized soil and native plants from Oak Creek, a sandstone rock wall, and natural lighting provide familiar surroundings. The vivarium water feature is especially important given that these snakes spend much of their time in the water and feed on live fish. A flowing water system, including a pond, stream, and small waterfall, contains fish which are native to Oak Creek such as the speckled dace. During winter, the snakes can access underground heated hibernation boxes via tubes from the semi-outdoor enclosure. Of course, Oak Creek predators like the non-native crayfish are not part of this natural habitat.

Two mini-vivaria have been constructed more recently to house gartersnake juveniles and segregate males to control breeding. Sedona Friends of the Forest joined other donors to procure materials for the new vivaria. For the Friends as an organization accustomed to procurement of trail signposts or graffiti removal tools, this was an unusual shopping list: plumbing fixtures, temperature control devices, pond pumps, and lighting equipment.

NAU students provide most of the routine operation of the vivarium under veterinarian supervision. Student interns care for the animals daily. As a federally accredited facility, the vivarium and associated labs must follow stringent standards to ensure the health of the snakes. The snakes and the fish they eat are regularly tested. Student caretakers follow strict biosecurity protocols when changing waters, feeding, or weighing snakes and fish, cleaning tanks and disinfecting materials. Such hands-on work with a federally threatened species is an exceptional education opportunity for these students.

“For me, the most exciting part of the year in the vivarium is in the spring when we bring the snakes out of hibernation,” said NAU student intern Sarah Pytleski. “In the wild, many snake species hibernate, or brumate throughout the winter. In the lab, we replicate the cold weather conditions of Oak Creek Canyon and similar snake habitats by putting the snakes into hibernation boxes and tanks in special refrigerators over the winter. In the spring, we remove them from the hibernation conditions and slowly acclimate them back to summer conditions in the lab. As they wake up, the snakes begin to show their individual personalities again. The snakes are research animals, but the interns are very fond of them. I enjoy my shifts in the summer because I get to watch the antics of the snakes as they hunt, swim, and slither around.”

Now, the public can watch the snakes swim and slither. Follow the happenings at the vivarium and on snake field surveys via Instagram @naugartersnakes.

In the vivarium surroundings, the narrow-headed gartersnake community has grown from the original eleven Oak Creek snakes to thirty-eight today. In the future, captive-bred offspring may augment existing wild populations or restore populations where they have been entirely lost.

Learn more about the NAU gartersnake program. Discover opportunities to volunteer for wildlife projects on the Red Rock Ranger District.

Serving Sedona, written this week by Jennifer Young of Friends of the Forest, appears in the Sedona Red Rock News.