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Chris Rombough

A Western rattlesnake basking in a sunny spot. Simon Wray, ODFW, photo. Click to Enlarge Photo

On the Ground: The Oregon Conservation Strategy at Work


May 2013

Oregon’s snake experts tell us what is happening with the state’s native reptiles and help dispel myths about these fascinating, ecologically important animals.



Oregon’s Native Snakes
Naturalist Advocates for the Northwest’s Reptiles
Research: For the Love of Snakes
A Lifelong Interest in Snakes Advances Science
Rattlesnake Butte is home to the Willamette Valley’s native reptiles
2013: The year of the snake
One small thing

An adult racer at John Day Fossil Beds.
An adult racer at John Day Fossil Beds. Al St. John photo. Click to Enlarge Photo


Fifteen species of snakes slither about the state, a natural and important part of the ecosystems in which they live. Many people are unnecessarily afraid of them because of persistent myths. To help dispel misconceptions and promote a better understanding of snakes, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has created two new fact sheets. One is a comprehensive addition to ODFW’s Living with Wildlife series, the other is designed for kids. Both are available in the Living with Wildlife section of the agency’s website.


There is not a biologist or herpetologist in the Northwest who doesn’t know that Alan St. John wrote the book on reptiles. So interviewing him for a short article seemed a daunting proposition—one that vanished as soon as he picked up the phone fresh from a trip to northwest Utah, where he has been searching for the elusive Sonoran mountain kingsnake.

Al St. John

Al St. John photographing a Great Basin collared lizard. Jan St. John photo.
Click to Enlarge Photo

Common Kingsnake
Common kingsnake. Al St. John photo
Click to Enlarge Photo

“Sorry I’ve been so hard to get ahold of,” he said. “I’ve been out in the field trying to clarify range maps for a future updated edition of my book. I was in the remote Deep Creek Range at the edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert, where there's zero wireless reception.”

His book is Reptiles of the Northwest, and it is gospel to the region’s herpetologists, conservationists and wildlife viewers.

St. John, however, didn’t come to biology in the traditional way. “I always say, I'm a professional amateur, an old style field naturalist.”

After graduating from high school in the mid-sixties, St. John worked at the Portland Zoo, eventually curating its reptile exhibit. When wanderlust took over, he packed his VW van with camera equipment and set out to explore the state’s habitats and species. “I’ve been happily poking about in these beautiful landscapes of the American West ever since,” he said.

His talent as a writer and photographer soon increased visibility of the species he tracked. He did herpetological field surveys for ODFW, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. He studied habitats and distribution, turning to publishing to share his expansive knowledge.

Snakes are a lifetime passion, and he tracks them closely.

“On the east side of the Cascades where I live, snakes seem to be doing relatively well. My biggest concern is the densely peopled Willamette Valley where habitat loss is causing problems. I grew up there, and historically rattlesnakes inhabited rocky oak savannas from Cottage Grove northward nearly to Portland.  

“In fact, the low ridge in urban Salem that is now Bush Park was called Rattlesnake Hill back in the 1850s. Now, the northern Pacific rattlesnake is barely managing to survive at a few scattered places in the southern sections of the valley. To my mind, in the dwindling Willamette oak prairie, the rattler is as much of an indicator species for ecological health as the federally protected Fender's blue butterfly."

On the positive side, St. John sees a growing tolerance of snakes. “People are becoming more educated and accepting of snakes and other reptiles—whether it’s the Discovery Channel or that more people are becoming interested in the natural world, it’s great to see.”

St. John is the author of Reptiles of the Northwest, Lone Pine Publishing, 2002, and Oregon’s Dry Side: Exploring East of the Cascade Crest, Timber Press, 2007.

Contact Al.



Chris Rombough

Biologist Chris Rombough with a Great Basin gopher snake.
Click to Enlarge Photo

Wildlife biologist Chris Rombough spends a lot of time out of cell phone range in the spring and summer. His cell phone message is fair warning: “This is Chris. I’m out in the field getting wet and muddy, leave me a message and I’ll call you back.”

And he does call back, as soon as gets a wireless signal. This day in June, he is in Eastern Oregon, studying Columbia spotted frogs for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

“I do a lot of work on frogs and turtles and other species, but most of the work I do on snakes is on my own time. It’s hard to get funding for snake research.”

There are two reasons for this, according to Rombough. “First, none of Oregon’s snakes are endangered, and second, snakes are not cute. There is too much fear.”

The fear factor is one Rombough is adamant about addressing in his role as an on-the-ground biologist and a wildlife control operator. “Last year, I got 30 calls to remove snakes, and I didn’t have to remove any, because I spent the time talking to folks, explaining snake behavior and their benefits. One-to-one education is important. There is just too much general killing of snakes for no reason.”

Rombough’s personal research includes collecting life history data for a variety of snake species, but his passion is the western rattlesnake, which he has been studying for 14 years, whenever he can find the time.

When asked if he could send a photo to go with this article, he explained, “I don’t have my computer with me, but I guess I could just stop and take a photo.”

Fifteen minutes later, there is a photo in the newsletter inbox of Chris with a Great Basin gopher snake, Pituophis catenifer deserticola.

Contact Chris Rombough, Rombough Biological, (503) 989-0031


Steven Arnold, Field Assistants

Stevan J. Arnold with field assistants, Thomas Arnold, Juliette Kiester and Caroline Arnold. Stevan J. Arnold photo.
Click to Enlarge Photo

Western Terrestrial Garter Snake
Western Terrestrial Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans). Al St. John photo. Click to Enlarge Photo


Stevan J. Arnold has been interested in snakes and lizards since he was a child, turning over rocks on his grandparents’ rural property in southern California. As a teenager, he drove the back roads, looking for snakes basking on blacktop. A zoology degree led to a career as an evolutionary biologist.

Today, he is a professor at Oregon State University and curator of amphibians and reptiles. The author of no fewer than 70 papers on snakes and salamanders, he has studied everything from diet to population viability to habitat use and evolution.

The western terrestrial garter snake (Thamnophis elegans) is a lifelong interest.

“It’s a wide ranging species—you find it from Canada to Mexico, from the Pacific Ocean to South Dakota,” he said. “It is satisfying work, because if you look a wide-ranging species using modern molecular techniques, you can unravel a couple of million years of evolutionary history, and then you start to understand what this thing we call the western terrestrial garter snake really is.”

“In Oregon, we found that Thamnophis elegans entered the state from at least three different directions. We identified a few new subspecies. While it remains to be seen if any of them has attained full species status, I would say the four species of garter snakes we recognize in the state today is the lower end of what we actually have—we may have six or eight.”

In addition to research, teaching and writing, Arnold takes calls from the public. “I always tell people that the old saw that snakes are beneficial for your yard holds true. They eat mice and slugs, for example. I also get a number of calls every fall from Willamette Valley homeowners who think they have a rattlesnake in their yard. Invariably, it turns out to be a gopher snake—a species that does a good job of mimicking a rattlesnake.”

“I do think education works and that the general attitude toward snakes is more positive today than ever before.”

As he looks back on his career, he reflects on the pleasure of untangling the long-term, evolutionary picture. “When you understand history, you gain an important perspective on the present. You understand yourself by knowing more about your parents and grandparents. The same holds true for all the species that make up Oregon’s fauna and flora.”

After he retires, “which I’ll do at some point, I guess,” he looks forward to writing books and managing his rural property–where he mows carefully to avoid garter snakes.

Stevan J. Arnold’s research papers are available on his website.



In 2012, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde took ownership of 97 acres of land at Rattlesnake Preserve in Lane County. Fifty acres were donated by The Nature Conservancy and 47 acres came from the ODFW Willamette Wildlife Mitigation Program funded by the Bonneville Power Administration. All of the property is under a conservation easement.

Chris Rombough

Rattlesnake Butte. Mike Karnosh photo.
Click to Enlarge Photo

Rattlesnake Butte takes its name from the western rattlesnake, a species that exists only in rem­nant populations in the Willamette Valley where it is listed as a state sensitive species. The south facing rocky slopes harbor denning populations of the rattlesnake and virtually every other reptile native to the Willamette Valley. It is widely recognized as a significant area by the state’s resident herpetologists.

“This is a wonderful piece of property to protect,” said Michael Karnosh, Program Manager for the Confederated Tribes of the prairie and oak savannah habitats.

The Tribe, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is currently developing a management plan for the property. “Habitat for reptiles is a major management objective,” said Karnosh. The property will also be managed for birds, mammals and historic native plant assemblages.

In addition to Willamette Valley prairie and savanna wildflowers, the property contains plant species including Lemmon’s needlegrass, Roemer’s fescue, Hall’s violet, prairie lupine and turkey mullein—some of which are rare and uncommon. There are very few nonnative plant species on the property.

The property is located in the West Eugene Conservation Opportunity Area, approximately six miles south of Finley National Wildlife Refuge and eight miles north of Fern Ridge Reservoir.


Facts for kids
Two new fact sheets about Oregon’s native snakes are available on ODFW’s website.


Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation has designated 2013 as the year of the snake. It lists habitat destruction and fragmentation; road mortality; disease and pollution; invasive species; illegal wild harvesting and intentional human inflicted mortality as significant threats to snake populations around the world.




ODFW Conservation Biologist Susan Barnes suggests that it is easy to provide habitat for snakes in restoration and management plans by including habitat features such as ponds, rock piles, brush piles and basking sites. See Attract Reptiles and Amphibians to your Yard in the Oregon Extension website for more information.


On the Ground newsletter archives


The Oregon Conservation Strategy provides a blueprint and action plan for the long-term conservation of Oregon’s native fish and wildlife and their habitats through a voluntary, statewide approach to conservation. It was developed by ODFW with the help of a diverse coalition of Oregonians including scientists, conservation groups, landowners, extension services, anglers, hunters, and representatives from agriculture, forestry and rangelands.

Meg Kenagy
Oregon Conservation Strategy Communications coordinator
(503) 947-6021

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