WASHINGTON (CN) - An eastern wetland rattlesnake has been proposed for threatened listing status under the Endangered Species Act due to habitat loss and a variety of other threats. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed the eastern massasauga rattlesnake, a pit viper, for listing protection Wednesday, but will not designate critical habitat because it would further endanger the snakes to do so, it said.
The snake has been waiting for federal listing protection since 1982, but it is listed as endangered, threatened or as a species of concern in all of the 10 states and one Canadian province where it occurs.
The federal listing proposal is due to an unprecedented 2011 settlement agreement between the Fish and Wildlife Service and a coalition of environmental groups spearheaded by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). The agreement directs the agency to make listing determinations within a six year period for hundreds of species that have been in listing limbo for years, and in some cases, for decades.
Though the snakes are still found in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada, the populations are scattered and small. More than 30 percent of the historical populations have vanished, and another 20 percent have questionable viability and are given an "uncertain" status.
These two-foot long snakes live in wet areas, such as wet prairies, marshes and areas along rivers and lakes. They also use nearby uplands at some times of the year. The snakes hibernate underwater in crayfish or small mammal burrows where the water protects them from dehydration and freezing during the winter.
Pit vipers have heat sensitive "pits" on each side of the head between the eyes and the nostrils which alert the snakes to the presence of prey, such as small rodents. They also find prey by sight, by feeling vibrations and by detecting odors.
The snakes face serious threats from habitat loss and fragmentation. Wetlands are lost through conversion to agriculture or development, and also from a process known as succession due to the encroachment of woody vegetation or the proliferation of invasive species. Mowing, herbicides and burning are used to control woody vegetation and invasives. However, these methods can kill the snakes if they have emerged from their hibernation burrows, called hibernacula, according to the action.
Other threats include road deaths, droughts or flooding, disease, climate change, poaching and persecution.
"People's fear of the massasauga and the species' resultant persecution are largely unwarranted. These are docile, secretive snakes that will try to escape rather than fight," the agency said.
Reptile poaching for the pet trade and collectors poses such a serious threat to the snakes that the FWS will not designate critical habitat for them because to do so would publicly disclose maps and specific descriptions of where they can be found in much greater detail than what is published in the listing proposal, the agency said.
"Reptile trafficking reports documented 35 eastern massasauga rattlesnakes (representing nearly one entire wild source population) collected in Canada and smuggled into the United States, most destined for the pet trade," the action noted.
Because the agency determined that massasauga rattlers are not currently on the brink of extinction, the snakes are proposed for listing as a threatened species, meaning they are likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future.
"Protection under the federal Endangered Species Act is the best way to save the eastern massasauga," CBD's Collette Adkins, an attorney and biologist who works to protect rare reptiles and amphibians, said. "Federal listing would protect the snake's remaining wetland habitats and help people understand that they should leave these shy snakes alone."
Comments on the listing proposal are due Nov. 30, and public hearing requests are due in writing by Nov. 16.
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