The Eastern Massassauga Rattlesnake used to be found all over the Midwest. Now there’s only one state where the population is fairly healthy, but even there it’s threatened by rapid development. A group of scientists is trying to protect the snake before all of its habitat is gone.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris McCarus reports:
The Eastern Eastern Massassauga Rattlesnake used to be found all over the Midwest. Now there’s only one state where the population is fairly healthy. But even there, it’s threatened by rapid development. A group of scientists is trying to protect the snake before all of its habitat is gone. The GLRC’s Chris McCarus reports:
(Sound of snake rattling)
A team of veterinarians and researchers is pulling an Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake from a bag. They put the snake on an operating table. Then the doctor snips open the skin.
“Okay, so I’m into the abdominal cavity.”
She’s putting a radio transmitter the size of a AA battery into the snake’s belly. This will allow them to track the snake’s movement in the wild for the next two years.
Kristin Wildman is a graduate student at Michigan State University. She catches and tracks the snakes. She’s involved in a project with federal, state and university biologists. They’re trying to protect the Massasauga.
She thinks of the snakes as being much like herself. She identifies with their personalities. Wildman says these snakes are just modest. They don’t like to attract attention and don’t like to hurt anybody.
“Like with this snake, she’s one of the bitier snakes I have in this study. And she only strikes the tongs – the snake tongs – because I’m grabbing her with the snake tongs. It just kind of gives you an idea. They don’t really strike unless you’re messing with them, unless they have a really good reason to, or unless they’re harassed enough that they feel they need to.”
Although it would rather avoid you, if you’re bitten by a Massasauga Rattler, its venom can kill you.
But it can’t fight people destroying its habitat.
Mike DeCapita is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He and other experts say rapid development is the snake’s biggest enemy. It’s not only destroying the snake’s habitat, it’s also destroying other wildlife habitat.
“The Massasauga is sort of an indicator species or a keystone species; perhaps that if we adjust so that we protect the needs of the Massasauga then all those species that use that same type of habitat also are protected.”
The onslaught of development has made the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake a candidate for the endangered species list, though it’s not on the list yet.
(Sound of hammering and cement mixing)
A new subdivision is being built in suburban Detroit. It’s just beyond the gate of a park where the research team came to study Massasauga habitat.
(Sound of people walking on a trail and talking)
Andy Hertz works for the State Department of Environmental Quality. He has the authority to refuse a building permit to anyone who could hurt Massasaugas.
“This is part of an effort of making us more aware of the habitat the Massasauga’s found in, so hopefully, we can direct developers and landowners to stay away from these more sensitive areas.”
In the winter, the Massasauga joins the frogs and turtles. They hibernate in marshes about two feet underground. Then, in spring and summer, they’ll seek higher ground for feeding. They can’t survive if they can’t move back and forth between their summer and wintering grounds. The research team has figured out this rule for minimizing damage to the snake’s habitat: don’t tamper with wetlands in winter nor the uplands in summer.
The team is focusing on Michigan to see why the population is the healthiest there. Then perhaps they can understand how to protect the rattlers in the rest of the Midwest where they’re nearly wiped out.
While she’s looking for more snakes, graduate student Kristin Wildman laughs about how a woman once called her to take a Massasauga away from the side of her house.
“We said, ‘Well, we’ll come out and we’ll move it for you.’ And we usually just move it down into the nearest wetland, down the hill. We pull in and she lives on Rattlesnake Drive. I didn’t expect to move out here and have all these rattlesnakes and stuff. It’s like, you live on Rattlesnake Drive. It’s called that for a reason.”
Wildman says when people come into conflict with wildlife, the wildlife almost always loses. If the Massasauga Rattler is going to survive it will take constant attention from all kinds of experts. They’ll have to stop developers from building over the snake’s habitat and threatening its existence.
For the GLRC, I’m Chris McCarus.