Searchin' for 'Saugas in Soggy Situations

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Surveys at SWMLC

There’s a special feeling of gratefulness when a friend shares their umbrella during a storm.

 

When the umbrella is so large that it protects a whole ecosystem of plants and animals, there might be a federally endangered snake to thank.

“People ask why we restore habitat for one species but it’s not just about eastern massasauga rattlesnakes (EMRs),” explains Mitch Lettow, SWMLC Stewardship Director. “When we protect and steward land for EMRs, it benefits water quality, plus hundreds of other fen species including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and plants.”

Protecting nationally endangered species like EMRs and Mitchell’s satyr butterflies also gives SWMLC access to federal conservation dollars for habitat improvement and other projects, which then benefits those many other fen-dwellers.

Learning which preserves have EMRs and where the snakes spend their time helps us better understand how we can take care of them. Here in southwest Michigan, EMRs favor fens (sunny sedge wetlands) that are next to wooded uplands, so we focused our surveys on two SWMLC preserves that have those habitats, our new LaGrange Valley Wetlands in Cass County and popular Portman Nature Preserve in Van Buren County.

Portman Nature Preserve  |  Amelia Hansen

But it’s not easy to find a small, camouflaged snake that either freezes or flees into a thick wetland landscape and the team felt like they were looking for a needle in a 457-acre haystack when they visited LaGrange Valley Wetlands. There is a large population of EMRs just next door at Edward Lowe Foundation’s Big Rock Valley, but a paved road separates the two properties and we wondered how many of the little snakes had dared to cross that open space where they’re so vulnerable to hawks, cranes, herons, coyotes, and raccoons. Still, it seemed likely they were at LaGrange Valley, too, even though only one had been seen there in the past ten years.

LaGrange Valley Wetlands  |  Jason Byler

So, with prospects sensibly quelled, the team marched slowly through LaGrange Valley’s dense wetlands, stepping carefully with heads down. About an hour’s trudge from the nearest exit, Mitch spied a beautiful little rattlesnake with its characteristic black mask and gorgeous spotted pattern, elegantly draped and woven through the dry marsh grass. The excited band of surveyors gathered round, marveling at the prize and clicking photos. Heartened, the group returned to the site two more times that week and found one EMR each day, for a total of three. We strongly suspect there are many more out there!

LaGrange Valley Wetlands  |  Mitch Lettow
LaGrange Valley Wetlands  |  Colleen Kellogg
LaGrange Valley Wetlands  |  Colleen Kellogg
LaGrange Valley Wetlands  |  Jason Byler

The team also combed the prairie fens of Portman Nature Preserve, areas that are deliberately located far from people and trails. Despite repeated surveys by SWMLC staff, massasaugas have been seen at Portman only three times in the last 15 years, but the team remained optimistic. Joining them were Adam Austin, Research Associate with The Rattlesnake Conservancy, and filmmaker Colleen Kellogg, who is making a documentary on EMRs and the people that care about them.

Portman Nature Preserve  |  Colleen Kellogg

Again, they fanned out, using walking sticks to lift and peek under sedges, ferns, brush piles, shrubs, and logs – but the massasaugas played it cool and hid. Other reptiles were less shy, like the two very large blue racers that were found mating out in the open (get a room!). The EMRs continued to elude the searchers – until Adam nearly stepped on one! And even though it was the only EMR they found at Portman, the team were excited to also hear a chorus of spring birds, see a swarm of tiny tadpoles, find several spiny softshells and a stinkpot musk turtle, and observe assorted snake species – all shielded by the umbrella of the EMR’s federally endangered conservation status.

Colleen Kellogg
Colleen Kellogg
Amelia Hansen

A few week later, Mitch attended a week-long EMR survey at Edward Lowe Foundation’s (ELF) Big Rock Valley property to learn more about EMR surveying and management strategies. Fifteen years of surveys at Big Rock Valley have yielded some incredible insights into massasauga biology, population status, and conservation. A team of university researchers and staff from zoos with captive EMR breeding programs joined ELF staff for four full days of scouring the wetlands, finding a whopping 55 eastern massasauga rattlesnakes at Big Rock Valley! Seventeen had been found the previous year but 38 were found for the first time ever.

Edward Lowe Foundation  |  Mitch Lettow

State and federal permits allow ELF to collect data on size, age, condition, gender, and genetics from the EMRs found at Big Rock Valley. With his previous venomous snake handling training, Mitch was able to practice capturing and releasing snakes, and watch how professional veterinary staff process snakes safely and efficiently, including detailed protocols for sanitizing gear so as not to spread disease. Gently captured with big rubber tongs, the little snakes are placed in special bags and kept in securely locked plastic buckets. Then, designated runners carry the snakes from field to eco lab, where researchers carefully measure the animals, collect blood for genetic studies, and check to see if females have babies developing inside.

Big Rock Valley  |  Jarod Reibel
Edward Lowe Foundation  |  Mitch Lettow
Edward Lowe Foundation  |  Mitch Lettow
Edward Lowe Foundation  |  Mitch Lettow

Species surveys like these are fun, fulfilling, hard work that answer the vital questions, “what have we protected?” and “how are those plants, animals, and habitats doing?” The answers help us understand how to steward the land and take good care of the things we’ve protected so we don’t lose them or, worse, lose something we never knew we had.

Photos: Jason Byler,  Amelia Hansen,  Colleen Kellogg,  Mitch Lettow,  Jarod Reibel     |    Story: Mitch Lettow and Amelia Hansen