Saving Habitat to Save the Massasauga

When habitats disappear because of human development, often so do some of the plants and animals that live there. In Pennsylvania, the eastern massasauga rattlesnake is losing its habitat to sprawl. To begin our series on land conservation in Pennsylvania, The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray follows some people who are trying to save the massasauga by managing land these rare snakes need to survive.

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OPEN: When habitats disappear because of human development, often so do some of the plants and animals that live there. In Pennsylvania and other locations, the Eastern massasauga rattlesnake is losing its habitat to sprawl. The massasauga landed on Pennsylvania's endangered species list in 1978 and is on the waiting list for federal endangered status. To begin our series on land conservation in Pennsylvania, The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray follows some people who are trying to save the massasauga by managing land these rare snakes need to survive.

NAT SOUND: WALKING THROUGH PRAIRIE GRASS

MURRAY: Matt Kowalski and Ryan Miller are making their way through shoulder high prairie grass.

KOWALSKI: Have you got your GPS on?

MURRRAY: Kowalski is a herpetologist- a reptile guy- with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He stops and thumps the ground with a rod to see if he can get a heavily camouflaged massasauga to rattle back at him. As he continues to pound, he suddenly jumps back.

KOLAWSKI: That was either a bug or I had the tip of a snake under my foot.

MURRAY: Chances are it was a massasauga. 50 to 150 of these rare venomous snakes live on this small chunk of grassland in Jennings State Park north of Pittsburgh. It's one of only four known populations of Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes that still thrive in Pennsylvania.

KOWALSKI: You've got 'em here in Pensylvania because they're dependent on a habitat where they've got an interface between somewhere they can hibernate and somewhere they can live the other half of the year.

MURRAY: During warm months, massasaugas need open habitat to soak up the sun to maintain their body temperature , hunt and give birth. In winter, these snakes need wetlands to hibernate.

KOWALSKI: People think..wetland there's all kind of wetland out there. These snakes depend on a unique kind of wetland that has a water table just above or below the surface of the soil. They need to immerse themselves in the water because it's really the water that maintains that stable temperature throughout the wintering months.

MURRAY: The problem is lots of this particular kind of wet meadow habitat has disappeared in the last 100 years. Farms, interstate highways, and suburban areas have gobbled it up. Today, Jennings State Park and a small section of nearby state gamelands remain open enough for massasauga to make a go of it there. The park keeps woods from covering up its small patch of prairie with controlled fires and cuttings. Park manager Dave Johnson says 25 years ago,talking the state into actively maintaining land for a venomous snake was a tough sell.

JOHNSON: Some people had problems with that. But their concept of biodiversity and the necessity of keeping all these elements together in an ecosystem wasn't quite as developed in the public as it is today.

MURRAY: But even today, not everyone recognizes the massasaugas' value as a predator and source of food for hawks and raccoons. Two of the remaining four populations in the state are entirely on private lands and their exact numbers aren't known. On these areas, no one is required to manage for snake habitats.

NAT SOUND: Dog barking at ED BARR'S HOUSE
A few landowners like Ed Barr who've discovered massasaugas on their property are voluntarily working with The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Barr says he's learned a lot by helping the herpitologists and gets a kick out of encountering the massasaugas. His eyes twinkle when he shows off photographs of some of the snakes he's found on the sunny hillside behind his house or in his swampy lowland.

BARR: This one was about 22 and 1/2 inches I think which is a fairly good sized snake - you can see how heavy she is there. She's full of babies.

MURRAY: Barr scoops the snakes he finds into a big bucket so scientists from the Conservancy can measure and tag them. The conservancy also clears brush on Barr's land to keep the habitat open for the massasaugas.

BARR: They're doing their best. And as far as I'm concerned, I'm not going to do anything with my property to jepordize that.

MURRAY: But Barr doesn't have a legal agreement with the Conservancy. He hopes his daughter who will inherit his property will talk with the organization about selling the land or providing an easement.

NAT SOUND: PRAIRIE:
MURRAY: Back at Jennings State Park, Matt Kowalski says these kinds of legal agreements should be fast tracked..

KOWALSKI: It's getting to the point where things are critical. If things don't start happening soon, then regardless of what we do down the road, if we lose too many snakes, there's not going to be enough to save. We really do need to get on the ball. Buy some properties. Ease some property.

MURRAY: For now, Kowalski plans to clear a couple small plots of overgrown prairie in the park to study the best ways to manage massasauga habitat. The conservancy will also put together a conservation plan for each tract of private land where the snakes've been found. Kowalski says saving the remaining massasaugas in Pennsylvania will take a big, ongoing effort by the state, conservancies and landowners. And he doesn't want to fail.

KOWALSKI: I'd like to come back year after year and bring my son and show him what a massasauga looks like rather than tell him there used to be this snake that daddy studied in this beautiful habitat.

MURRAY: For The Allegheny Front, this is Ann Murray.