The Rattlesnake Conservancy Finds Partners in New Peninsula to Conserve Threatened Species, Habitats
Written by Adam Austin, TRC Research Associate
KALAMAZOO, MI (Sept. 22, 2023) - The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (EMR) is a small, shy species of pygmy rattlesnake, and is one of only two rattlesnake species listed as federally threatened in the United States under the USFWS Endangered Species Act. It’s also the focus of a new conservation partnership between Florida-based non-profit The Rattlesnake Conservancy (TRC) and the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy (SWMLC).
“Given their shy and cryptic nature, our knowledge of EMR populations and distribution amongst our preserves - and Southwest Michigan in general - remains largely unknown,” said Mitch Lettow, SWMLC’s stewardship director. “The EMR work with TRC represents the most substantial effort SWMLC and its staff have taken to better understand endangered herpetofauna on our preserves.”
TRC is providing training, equipment, and manpower to help monitor the health of known EMR populations and potentially detect undiscovered ones. Understanding the size and locations of EMR populations helps to identify new threats and diseases, guide land management decisions like where and when to conduct prescribed burns, and tap into conservation funding that helps preserve habitats that support EMRs and other rare species.
“2023 was the first year of this partnership and it mostly focused on hands-off survey efforts,” said Adam Austin, a research associate and venomous handling instructor with TRC. “Eventually we plan to begin regular disease testing for these animals and implanting PIT tags so we can identify individuals. It’ll allow us not only to see if animals are present at a site, but also help us monitor the population size and be alerted to any changes we should be concerned about.”
PIT stands for ‘passive-integrated transponder,’ meaning it has no batteries and simply reads off a unique identification number when scanned. They’re the same rice-sized microchips used for household pets. EMRs are protected at the federal level and in every state they are found, which means they can’t be pursued, harassed, or handled in any way without special permits. SWMLC and TRC’s permits are pending, but they hope to have them approved soon so they can expand their efforts next year.
Another important aspect of this partnership are the habitats themselves. ‘Massasauga’ is an Ojibwe word meaning ‘great river-mouth,’ a reference to the open-canopy wetlands often found near river mouths that serve as the preferred home for this rare species. These habitats were once plentiful in the Great Lakes region - the heart of the EMR’s range - but have been destroyed and fragmented by roads and agriculture. Wetlands support around 40% of the world’s species but more 75% of the world’s wetlands have been lost in just the last 150 years, including more than half of Michigan’s.
“While EMRs are only one member of our native biodiversity, they have a life history that is linked to many parts of a healthy Southwest Michigan landscape,” said Lettow. “Supporting
EMRs means having a quality groundwater supply, a healthy food web, a variety of cover types and natural communities with low woody cover, connections between upland and wetland habitats, and large blocks of protected habitat. Maintaining healthy populations of these snakes will not just preserve the species itself, it benefits many other species as well as ecosystem functions that help human communities where they live.”
Examples of species that share EMR habitat include the state endangered Kirtland’s snake, threatened Blanding’s and Eastern box turtles, the endangered Mitchell’s satyr butterfly, and special concern species like Northern blue racers. While SWMLC already owns and manages more than 18,417 acres across nine counties, they’re currently raising funds to purchase what would be their largest preserve to date - the 457 acre LaGrange Valley in Cass County, which is home to all of these species and likely EMRs as well.
“Preserving and improving habitat to support existing populations is the first priority, and we’re excited to work with such a great group of people to help facilitate those efforts,” said Austin. “We’re also helping with public outreach and continuing to network and expose more people to these incredibly misunderstood animals through our bi-annual venomous handling courses at the Kalamazoo Nature Center.”
While EMRs are present in many nature preserves that have high foot traffic, most Michiganders have never seen one. That’s because EMRs are like all snakes - they prefer to flee or hide from humans rather than start a fight they can’t win. Exposing the public to these animals in a safe environment helps to highlight their docile nature and relieve the anxiety many people feel around snakes, especially venomous ones.
“TRC has and will continue to be a huge boost to getting these efforts off the ground, and has already advanced our capacity to save these chubby little buzztails,” said Lettow. “Their flexibility in habitat, the potential to find more populations as we survey, and the status of Southwest Michigan being a core population center, give us great hope that this species will recover with enough resources, time, and ambition.”
To learn more about SWMLC’s other conservation efforts or to contribute to their fundraising efforts for LaGrange Valley, visit their website here. To learn more about TRC’s work or to register for one of their venomous handling courses, you can check out their website.