WASHINGTON (CN) — The eastern massasauga rattlesnake has been listed as a threatened species due to habitat loss, but persecution and collection threats have barred a critical habitat designation. Most populations of this small snake are in Michigan and Ontario, but they are also found in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa.
The current range has remained the same as the known historical range, but the populations within the range have declined by nearly 40 percent, and an additional 24 percent of the known populations are in doubt. “We know of 558 historical populations, of which 211 have been lost and the status of 84 is uncertain, with the likelihood that many of those populations have also been lost,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
At the state and provincial level, the massasauga is currently listed as endangered, threatened or as a species of special concern in every state or province where it occurs, the agency said.
The Service identified the snake as a candidate species in 1982, but further progress on a listing determination was stalled due to higher listing priorities, according to the listing proposal last year. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) conservation group and its allies sued the agency for not timely acting on hundreds of listing determinations, and a 2011 settlement agreement hammered out a six-year workplan for the agency to address the backlog. That workplan winds down at the end of September.
“It’s too bad this beautiful, misunderstood snake had to wait more than 30 years to get Endangered Species Act protection, but I’m glad it finally has,” CBD’s attorney Elise Bennett said. “Eastern massasaugas are important and deserve our respect. With protection, they have a shot at survival and recovery.”
Rattlesnakes, which are venomous pit vipers, engender fear and fascination in humans, leading to them being either killed or collected. The massasuaga, however, is not known to be an aggressive snake. “The timid eastern massasauga is a small snake with a thick body, heart-shaped head and vertical pupils. The average length of an adult is about 2 feet. People’s fear of the massasauga and the species’ resultant persecution are largely unwarranted. Eastern massasaugas are docile, secretive snakes that will try to escape first rather than defend themselves or fight,” the agency said.
Available habitat for the snakes has decreased dramatically due to development. Massasaugas are also known as ‘swamp rattlers,’ and it is the loss of wetlands and the diversion of water flow for agriculture and urban development that has resulted in the fragmentation of available habitat for the snakes. Individual snakes are often killed by cars as they try to travel between wetland areas, or are killed by homeowners who find them traveling through their yards.
“The destruction of wetlands and surrounding uplands in the Midwest by urban and agricultural sprawl is leaving the eastern massasauga with few places to live,” Bennett said.
Even though the massasauga is now listed as an ESA-protected species, killing them for self protection or to protect another person is allowed, the agency said. However, because the snake is seldom seen and docile, the agency says that fears of the snake are mostly exaggerated.
“Encounters with humans are rare and fatalities associated with snake bites are even rarer. In rare cases that snake bites do occur, it is often because people are actively trying to get close to the snake or trying to kill it, and the snake naturally defends itself and its young. If you live near areas with eastern massasaugas, there are steps you can take to keep them away from your yard. Cut your grass short and often, remove structures that a snake might use (leaf piles, brush piles, dead logs, rocks, stacks of firewood), and remove food or habitat that might attract small rodents,” the agency noted.
Because some states even have bounties on rattlesnakes, and some populations near human habitation have been deliberately wiped out, the agency determined that it was not prudent to designate critical habitat for this species, as the designation would publish the precise location of known populations in a way that is publically accessible to those intent on harming the snakes or collecting them for the pet trade.
Though some question the wisdom of protecting venomous snakes, the agency notes that they are important to the health of their ecological communities. “Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes play an important role in the ecosystem, serving as both predator and prey,” Tom Melius, the Service’s Midwest Regional Director, said. “Conserving the massasauga means we are conserving natural areas that serve as habitat for many other plant and wildlife species.”
In addition, the snakes themselves may prove to be of direct value to humans, as rattlesnake venom is being explored for medical treatments for a variety of ailments including arthritis, multiple sclerosis and polio. “Rattlesnake venom also has anti-coagulant properties that stay localized, unlike some other anti-coagulants that are currently used to prevent strokes and heart attacks,” the agency said.
The listing is effective Oct. 31.
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