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Snake, Rattle and Restore...Candidate Conservation In Action

An eastern massasauga uses restored habitat in Ohio. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)
An eastern massasauga uses restored habitat in Ohio. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

By Kraig McPeek
Rock Island Field Office
Former Ohio Private Lands Biologist

Strong conservation partnerships are key to any successful initiative.  Such is the partnership among the Ohio Private Lands office and our conservation partners in northeast Ohio.  This partnership is playing a critical role in delivering results for the conservation of the eastern massasauga rattlesnake in the Grand River Lowlands in northeast Ohio.  The eastern massasauga is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

There are many beautiful places in the state of Ohio.  But there are few as great as the wetland complexes of northeast Ohio, specifically the areas of northern Trumball and southern Ashtabula counties known as the Grand River Lowlands.  These areas are intricate complexes of wet mesic meadow fields bordered by river sloughs.  They are dynamic, ever-changing wetland complexes, as beavers move and rebuild dams.

Farmed areas like this adjacent to eastern massasauga habitat have been restored in northeast Ohio. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)
Farmed areas like this adjacent to eastern massasauga habitat have been restored in northeast Ohio. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

For the last several years, the Service’s Ohio Private Lands office has been building relationships and working with partners to identify and implement strategically placed habitat restoration projects on private property near known locations of the eastern massasauga rattlesnake.  Many of these properties had experienced successional transition from open/mesic grassland meadows to scrub/shrub and even young forest habitat.  In other cases, the properties were being farmed. 

Using GLRI funds, the Ohio Private Lands office is restoring these open meadows by hiring local contractors to clear shrubs and other woody vegetation.  Encroaching woody vegetation not only lessens the suitability of the habitat for the eastern massasauga, but also creates perching areas for aerial predators.  Crop fields are restored using a variety of seed mixes and natural regeneration of the local seed bed.  Work to restore massasauga habitat is done during the winter months, when the snakes are typically hibernating in crayfish burrows.  Work that is not performed in the winter must be accomplished by hand crews during the summer.

In total, the Ohio private lands office and our partners have restored or enhanced more than 15 properties totaling 200 acres of eastern massasauga habitat.  These restorations targeted land adjacent to known occupied areas and have been successful in expanding habitat for the snake.  Of course, none of this was possible without assistance from our partners in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Western Reserve Land Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy and Mr. Greg Lipps, a professional herpetologist.  Having studied the snake for many years, Mr. Lipps has been instrumental in conducting surveys and providing suggestions on physical habitat alterations that benefit the snake.

The hard work is paying off.  During the spring and early summer of 2012, adult snakes have been positively identified using six properties that have been restored.   In total, 23 snakes have been captured in 2012 at restoration sites.  Our efforts are enhanced as we learn more about the eastern massasauga and the habitat types they encounter.

In addition to standard measurements taken from these snakes, each individual is pit tagged for future identification.  One individual that was captured at a restoration site was pit tagged six years earlier at a location over 6 miles away.  In the spring of 2012, two individuals (one male and one female) were surgically implanted with radio transmitters (9g Holohil SI-2 units) by a veterinarian from the Toledo Zoo.  By tracking these two individuals, we are learning new ways that the snake utilizes habitat and more about their diurnal movements through various habitat types.  This information has been critical in helping the Ohio Private Lands office and our partners implement adaptive management to better our habitat restoration techniques and protection efforts.

Ultimately, these lessons learned, restoration actions taken, and our strong conservation partnerships are helping us to achieve candidate conservation.



Last updated: June 8, 2020