Friday, June 29, 2018

Feature: PA Natural Heritage Program: Restoring Habitat For The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake

Earlier this year, during the coldest months of this long winter, a small crew of Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program zoologists spent time improving habitat for the eastern massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus).
This small, non-aggressive rattlesnake is smaller and much more confined in its habitat needs than the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). It is rare for someone to see one of these snakes.
While this endangered species is hibernating deep underground in crayfish and mammal burrows that provide access to groundwater, our crew was busy removing trees and brush that overgrew the snake’s preferred old-field habitats.  
One of the primary reasons that massasauga populations are declining nationwide is vegetative succession that casts shade over the once sunny fields and grassy areas that the snakes use for basking and foraging.
Without these exposed, warm areas the cold-blooded snakes cannot carry out important functions like digestion and reproduction.
Over the past 10 years PNHP staff have been working within massasauga sites on state and private land to help remove the brush and young trees that create shade and discourage the snakes from using the habitat.  
We do a lot of the work by hand using chainsaws and brush clearing saws to minimize ground disturbance in sensitive wetland areas where the snakes are likely to be hibernating.
During the winter or in less sensitive areas, we also have used contractors with rubber tracked skid-steers with a brush cutter mounted on the front.
These machines are very effective at removing large areas of brush in limited time and if done when the ground is frozen solid, there is no soil or wetland disturbance and more importantly no chance of disturbing or hitting a snake.
This work also benefits species that prefer early successional habitat, like woodcock and grouse, which have also seen declines in their populations.   
The opportunities to conduct this important work have come from partnerships with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Fish and Boat Commission, the Game Commission, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and from generous private donors.
Private landowners have also been great partners in massasauga conservation, opening their lands for restoration work and taking a great interest in the animals and their future protection.
In December, one landowner granted the acquisition of 2.5 acres of massasauga habitat after learning about the snakes and their plight. Together with other landowners, we have restored or expanded over 100 acres of habitat on public and private land.
This winter our work focused on a Western Pennsylvania Conservancy property and was made possible through a partnership with the Game Commission’s Voluntary Public Access-Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP).
This spring we hope to see snakes using the habitat that we restored as we continue to look for opportunities to improve and maintain habitat for the eastern massasauga in Pennsylvania.
For more information about the eastern massasauga and our work, please visit the WPC  eastern massasauga rattlesnake webpage.
The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy works under contract with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to provide Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program services, including the management of the Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Inventory database and collection of information on Pennsylvania’s natural communities and rare, threatened, and endangered species.
More information is available on programs, initiatives and special events at the Western PA Conservancy website.  Click Here to sign up for regular updates from the Conservancy, Like them on Facebook, Follow them on Twitter, add them to your Circle on Google+, join them on Instagram, visit the Conservancy’s YouTube Channel or add them to your network on Linkedin.  Click Here to support their work.
(Photo: Top- Before habitat work, Bottom- After, Right- eastern massasauga rattlesnake.)
(Written by the Western PA Conservancy.)

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