Like California deer corridors, some in Colorado want them for tarantulas

Every fall, this sprawling, flat corner of southeastern Colorado is home to thousands upon thousands of creatures—some on eight legs, some on two.

Scientists, nature lovers, and that rare subspecies of humanity obsessed with spiders all come to see something remarkable: hordes of wispy, fist-sized male tarantulas emerging from their burrows to scour the short-grass prairie for mates.

Parking lots were full and cars lined the roads of the 440,000-acre Comanche National Grassland and nearby Vogel Canyon.

Charlie Fox, a floorer from a suburb of Denver, and his two grandsons peered into a spider burrow. Fox, 70, owns 10 tarantulas and is a thrill-seeker. He lost half a finger in an alligator wrestling mishap at a reptile park, where the preserved digit is on display in the gift shop. And he fights with rattlesnakes.

Two tarantulas on dirt near holes in the ground

Male tarantulas pass each other while mate-hunting at the Southern Plains Land Trust in southeastern Colorado in September. A male taps his feet at the entrance of a female’s burrow in hopes that the vibrations will bring out the female. When it works, they face each other in a mating dance.

(Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post via Getty Images)

“I love tarantulas and I wanted these guys to see them in the wild,” he said. “I’ll look for snakes when the sun goes down.”

At the top of the nearby street, tarantulas trotted along the sidewalk as traffic slowed to avoid crushing them. So many are crushed each year that scientists propose tunnels to help them cross certain roads.

Aphonopelma hentzicommonly known as the Oklahoma or Texas Brown Tarantula, ranges as far east as Louisiana, with particularly high densities in this part of Colorado.

One of the larger towns in the area, La Junta, is developing a spider-centric tourism industry, with a tarantula festival, a tarantula website, and tarantula murals throughout the city.

“We want to be known as the tarantula capital of the world,” said Mayor Joe Ayala. “We want to be the home of the tarantulas.”

Tarantula fans say the spiders don’t deserve their reputation as a horror film. Despite their fierce appearance, tarantulas are mostly docile. Their bites are painful, but the venom is usually harmless to humans.

At worst, they can shed small hairs that can irritate the skin—researchers call it “hairiness.”

Jackie Billotte, 36, fell in love with spiders as a girl in Aurora, a suburb of Denver. She used empty, gallon-sized ketchup and mustard containers from her grandfather’s restaurant to catch them.

“I really wanted a tarantula, but my mom didn’t have one,” she said. “When I was very young, we got ants and rolling pins and built enclosures.”

Today, she’s a graduate student at Colorado State University who studies tarantulas and shares her home with 64 of them — plus four scorpions, a black widow, two snakes, a jumping spider that’s just had babies, a colony of fake death bugs, and three dogs .

Earlier this month, she and several other researchers and volunteers fanned out across a prairie near the town of Lamar, 55 miles east of La Junta.

They had come during mating season to study tarantula burrows, whose intricate shape might explain how they survive the harsh Colorado winters. Each spider digs for itself and spends most of its time there.

Jackie Billotte (left) and Rich Readin try to fish female tarantulas out of their burrows with long blades of grass

Jackie Billotte (left) and Rich Reading use long blades of grass to try to fish female tarantulas out of their burrows as the sun sets at Southern Plains Land Trust’s Heartland Ranch nature reserve.

(Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post via Getty Images)

The mission was to lure six females out of their burrows, secure them in containers, and then pour plaster of paris into each hole to create a cast of the chamber. The next day they would dig up the cast and put the females in new burrows that the researchers dug for them.

As dusk fell, the oppressive heat gave way to a sultry breeze. On the other side of the field everyone was fishing for spiders. They would crouch over golf ball-sized holes, gently waving blades of grass, trying to lure out a female.

someone screamed

“I got her out!” announced Terri Bauer, a social worker and volunteer at the Butterfly Pavilion, an invertebrate zoo and research center outside of Denver.

Bauer was delighted. Growing up, her friends nicknamed her Terri Tarantula because of her crush on the toothy, eight-eyed arachnids. At 18, she had a tarantula tattooed on her foot.

“Oh man, this is the best day,” she said.

Female brown tarantulas typically live for about 30 years and never move more than a few inches from their burrows. Men have a much shorter life. Around the age of 10, they dare to look for partners in the fall.

“Males will wander up to a mile at this time of year,” said Billotte, careful not to step on any of the single-minded, lovesick tarantulas crawling in front of her. “That’s a long way when you’re only 6 inches long.”

One climbed a colleague’s leg and reached his shoulder before gently placing it near a female’s burrow.

“Are you going to trick him?” asked Billotte.

The male would tap his feet on the entrance, hoping the vibrations would bring out the female. It worked. They stood face to face, engaged in a mating dance, silhouetted against the setting sun.

After that, the females often eat their unfortunate mates, who are an excellent source of protein.

“He may die, but what a way,” said Billotte.

Those who escape must face other dangers: starvation, deadly cold, predators, and of course, car and truck tires.

A male tarantula crosses Colorado Highway 71

A male tarantula crosses Highway 71 as dusk nears Lamar, Colorado. Because so many tarantulas get run over by cars, scientists have suggested tunnels to help them cross certain roads.

(Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post via Getty Images)

And that’s the other reason the researchers were visiting — to convince the state to install tarantula tunnels that are likely about a foot wide to protect the spiders from traffic.

“It’s quite upsetting to see her dead in the street,” Billotte said. “There was room for them before we built the road and we broke that.”

It is unclear how much the underpasses would cost. The plan would also require low fences in areas with high spider density to guide the creatures into the tunnels.

It’s hard to sell. Tarantulas are not endangered. They are not a major hazard to motorists.

And while millions of dollars have been spent on flyovers so deer, moose, and mountain lions can safely cross highways, tarantulas don’t get much public sympathy.

Rich Reading, vice president of science and conservation at the Butterfly Pavilion, said tarantulas deserve to be saved because they’re predators that help control pests like grasshoppers and beetles.

“And because they’re cool,” he added.

The Colorado Department of Transportation has provided 10 wildlife cameras to help find where tarantulas cross the roads. The researchers installed them. Depending on the findings, the state has promised up to 140 more.

A male tarantula crawls up Rich Reading's pants

A male tarantula crawls up the pants of Rich Reading, vice president of the Butterfly Pavilion, an invertebrate zoo and research center outside of Denver. Reading participated in research at the Southern Plains Land Trust Heartland Ranch Nature Preserve.

(Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post via Getty Images)

“We’ll see what we catch on camera, gather some preliminary data, and work out the vulnerabilities,” said Lorna McCallister, research manager at Butterfly Pavilion.

The state transportation agency is less concerned about the spiders than it is about the possibility of traffic accidents.

Michelle Peulen, a department spokeswoman, wondered about the dangers posed by motorists stopping on the freeway during the mating season.

“Do we need tarantula signs or turnoffs on freeways for people to see?”

This month, La Junta of 6,900 residents hosted its first annual Tarantula Fest, complete with music, a beer garden, parade, eight-legged race and expert-guided tarantula tours in the grasslands.

One of the most ornate tarantula paintings covers the side of the Halloween shop. Another decorates a wall in LiveWell Park. And when a car plowed through a local real estate agency, the hole was covered with plywood and a tarantula painted over it.

“It was about taking lemons and making lemonade,” said Pamela Denahy, the city’s director of tourism and events.

La Junta isn’t the first Colorado town to celebrate its local fauna or flora with a festival. Denahy hopes tarantulas will give La Junta the same economic boost that snow geese, sandhill cranes, mountain plovers, rutting moose and even watermelon have given other communities.

A sign outside the Junction 50 Galleria announced, “Tarantulas Are Coming Information Here.”

Char Hosea, who runs a stall there, fiddled with a smiling tarantula puppet she had created.

“When we first moved here, we had a big entrance on our doorstep,” she said. “If you get too close, they will rear up in front of you.”

Jackie Billotte, a graduate student at Colorado State University, looks at two captive female tarantulas\

Jackie Billotte, 36, a graduate student at Colorado State University, looks at two females caught while investigating tarantula burrows, whose intricate shape could explain how the spiders survive the harsh Colorado winters.

(Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post via Getty Images)

Her husband Cliff said it’s not always easy to avoid them on the freeway.

“When you come over a hill they can be hard to miss,” he said. “Sometimes there are 40 on the way.”

Back in Vogel Canyon, about 15 miles away, people were wandering the fields in search of tarantulas.

It is not illegal to catch and keep them, but it is strongly discouraged. Regardless, any captured male would reach the end of his life and not survive long in captivity.

Jennifer Meerpohl from Colorado Springs celebrated her daughter’s 11th birthday.

The girl and her friends roamed the landscape dotted with cacti, enthusiastically announcing each sighting. Tarantulas crawled over her shoes.

“Hazel has loved spiders since she was a baby,” Meerpohl said. “I had arachnophobia until she was born.”

Darkness soon fell. The crowd thinned as shadowy figures with flashlights cautiously made their way back to their cars. Thousands of determined tarantulas continued their search.

Kelly is a special correspondent. Like California deer corridors, some in Colorado want them for tarantulas

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