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Montana Field Guides

Western Milksnake - Lampropeltis gentilis
Other Names:  Milksnake, Lampropeltis triangulum

Species of Concern
Native Species

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S2

Agency Status

External Links

General Description
The back and sides of the body of the Milksnake are marked with whitish, black, and reddish or orange bands, with the reddish-orange bands bordered by the black; the snout is blackish and sometimes with whitish flecking. The bands often extend across the belly, but sometimes may be incomplete or absent, in which case the belly is whitish. Dorsal scales are smooth (unkeeled). The anal scale is not divided, as are most of the scales on the ventral surface of the tail. The neck is relatively short and thick. Total length of adults in the western Great Plains is usually 39 to 85 centimeters. Hatchlings are similar in appearance to adults, and 16 to 29 centimeters in total length. Eggs are slightly granular and range from 29 to 44 millimeters by 13 to 16 millimeters in length and breadth, depending on locality.

Diagnostic Characteristics
The whitish, black, and reddish to orange banding or rings around the body, an undivided anal scale, and smooth (unkeeled) dorsal scales distinguish the Milksnake from all other snakes native to Montana.

Species Range
Montana Range Range Descriptions


Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations: 159

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density



(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

No information on the movement or migration of Milksnakes is available for Montana. The species is believed to be non-migratory. Little information is available on movements of Milksnakes throughout the species' range. They may migrate between hibernacula and summer ranges in some areas (Vogt 1981, Fitch and Fleet 1970, Hammerson 1999), and home ranges are about 20 hectares in northeastern Kansas.

Little specific information is available. Milksnakes have been reported in areas of open sagebrush-grassland habitat (Dood 1980) and ponderosa pine savannah with sandy soils (Hendricks 1999), most often in or near areas of rocky outcrops and hillsides or badland scarps, sometimes within city limits.

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
A carnivorous species, Milksnakes eat mostly small vertebrates, including snakes, lizards, reptile eggs, birds, bird eggs, small mammals (especially mice), and occasionally insects and worms (Hammerson 1999, St. John 2002, Stebbins 2003). The food habits in Montana have not been reported or studied.

Milksnakes are mostly crepuscular and nocturnal, although they may on occasion be active during the day, particularly during moist surface conditions. In Colorado, Milksnakes emerge from dens in April and re-enter hibernacula in mid-October (Hammerson 1999), although they have been seen as late as mid-November. The active period in Montana is poorly documented; records extend from late May to October (Montana Natural Heritage Program Point Observation Database). Predators are largely unknown, including in Montana, but Milksnakes exhibit predator defense behavior, and rear up and strike, or vibrate the tail, when disturbed, although they are usually docile when handled.

Reproductive Characteristics
No information specific to the reproductive habits of the Milksnakes is known for Montana. Based upon information from other states, courtship and mating are believed to occur in spring, generally in May. Milksnakes lay clutches of 2 to 17 eggs; typical clutches in Colorado and adjacent areas are 4 to 6 eggs (Hammerson 1999). Eggs are laid usually in mid-June to mid-July. Eggs hatch in about 6 to 9 weeks, beginning in late August and most often in September. Some females reach sexual maturity in their 3rd or 4th year (45 to 50 centimeters snout-vent length) in Kansas (Fitch and Fleet 1970), and evidence indicates this is also the case in Colorado (Hammerson 1999). Longevity in wild populations is unreported, but captive individuals have lived more than 20 years.

So few recent Milksnake records exist for Montana (Maxell et al. 2003) that it is difficult to determine if management activity is needed. Nevertheless, the widely scattered recent records indicate that Milksnakes continue to occupy a large part of the known range in the state, and some sites near a large urban center have remained occupied for the last 40 to 45 years (Laurie Vitt, personal communication). Management for this species is hampered by a lack of basic information on abundance, food habits, and habitat associations. No specific management activities are suggested at this time, other than to protect dens and regulate or restrict commercial harvest for the pet trade.

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Dood, A.R. 1980. Terry Badlands nongame survey and inventory final report. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and Bureau of Land Management, Helena, MT. 70 pp.
    • Fitch, H.S. and R.R. Fleet. 1970. Natural history of the milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) in northeastern Kansas. Herpetologica 26: 387-396.
    • Hammerson, G.A. 1999. Amphibians and reptiles in Colorado. University Press of Colorado & Colorado Division of Wildlife. Denver, CO. 484 p.
    • Hendricks, P. 1999a. Amphibian and reptile survey of the Bureau of Land Management Miles City District, Montana. Montana Natural Heritage Program, Helena, MT. 80 p.
    • Maxell, B.A., J.K. Werner, P. Hendricks, and D.L. Flath. 2003. Herpetology in Montana: a history, status summary, checklists, dichotomous keys, accounts for native, potentially native, and exotic species, and indexed bibliography. Society for Northwestern Vertebrate Biology, Northwest Fauna Number 5. Olympia, WA. 135 p.
    • St. John, A.D. 2002. Reptiles of the northwest: California to Alaska, Rockies to the coast. Lone Pine Publishing, Renton, WA. 272 p.
    • Stebbins, R. C. 2003. A field guide to western reptiles and amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York. 533 p.
    • Vogt, R. C. 1981. Natural history of amphibians and reptiles of Wisconsin. Milwaukee Public Museum. 205 p.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
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Western Milksnake — Lampropeltis gentilis.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from