How we are responding to COVID-19

Why visitors to national parks may be at higher risk for snake bites this year

National parks are rightly focused on preventing the spread of COVID-19, but several factors also puts visitors at heightened risk from snakes.

Last week Yosemite National Park reported on two hikers bit by rattlesnakes and requiring medical treatment. Just a few weeks ago, tourists gathered outside one of Yellowstone National Park’s welcome centers were met with a 6-foot long rattlesnake popping out of an SUV engine and unwinding itself across the entire width of the car. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Yet the incident is another reminder that snake bites are on the rise this summer – for while national parks’ number one priority is rightly on preventing the spread of COVID-19, several factors also puts visitors to these parks at heightened risk from snakes.

For one thing, the number of rangers has decreased – by 20% since 2005 – just as national parks are seeing historically high visitation numbers. And despite some closures these past few months, visitor numbers have in many cases not dropped off: at Cades Cove in Tennessee, for instance, weekend visitation in May was 54% higher than the same month last year.

Onsite emergency medical services are also understaffed, and, amid COVID-19, overworked; as late as July 15th, professionals at the Grand Canyon were still awaiting funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to add a few additional members. Meanwhile, proposed budget cuts to the National Park Service, and local shortfalls have led to even less park staff.

At the same time, rangers at numerous national parks report that many visitors are out-of-state first-timers. To avoid crowds, these visitors may venture off the beaten path, potentially increasing their risk if they encounter a venomous snake. At Joshua Tree, a local photographer noticed people pitching tents on the side of the road, and in Yellowstone, a person was injured approaching a bison.

The biggest issue, however, might simply be the size and remoteness of these parks, which cover 84 million acres of land (the equivalent of two Floridas). Big Bend National Park, for instance, is 100 miles away from the nearest hospital. And some areas within national parks are so remote that they present real challenges for transporting victims of snake bites (or other injuries) to hospitals.

Writing in Outside in 2018, Kyle Dickman describes a near-death experience after being bitten by a venomous snake in Yosemite. Even though emergency medical professionals arrived within an hour and got him into a helicopter, he almost didn’t make it – his bite required 18 vials of antivenom, guidance from Poison Control every two hours, and nearly led to the amputation of his foot. He wasn’t released from the hospital for eight days.

As Dickman notes, the longer it takes to get to a hospital for antivenom, the worse the damage from envenomation. With less staff, bigger crowds, inexperienced newcomers, and the vastness of national parks, visitors need to be better prepared for snake encounters than they’ve ever been before.

A good place to start is our SnakeBite911 app, which provides life-saving tips to avoid snakes, guidance on what to do if bitten, and can locate nearby hospitals that may stock antivenom. For more tips, see our recent blog post, “Snakebite 101