Bob Frye / Tribune-Review
The eastern massasauga rattlesnake is, as a species, imperiled across most of its historic range.
There’s hope for Pennsylvania’s smallest, rarest rattlesnake.
According to Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission data, the eastern massasauga has long been rare in Pennsylvania. As recently as 1978, its range stretched only from Allegheny to Crawford counties.
Now, though, its base has shrunk even more, to perhaps a handful of locations in five counties. Considered endangered in Pennsylvania, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just on Sept. 29 listed it as a federally threatened species across its entire range. That means wildlife officials consider nearly 40 percent of the species’ historic populations to be extinct, with another 15 percent of unknown status.
Eastern massasaugas currently are found in scattered locations in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada. The snake is doing best in Michigan, but even there it’s in trouble.
Officials everywhere want to save it.
“Conservation of this rare snake is critical because it plays an important role as a predator of small mammals,” said Dan Kennedy, Michigan Department of Natural Resources endangered species specialist.
As it turns out, it may be possible to help the species, according to some recent research here in Pennsylvania.
Brandon Ruhe, president of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Herpetology and Conservation, said that organization has been involved with a recovery effort. Namely, it involved taking a 54-acre site in northwestern Pennsylvania and manipulating it.
The snakes – which grow to only about two feet long – are an early successional species, Ruhe said. They need young forests, wetlands and open habitats like meadows.
“That’s a problem in the modern context of land use,” he said.
The center, in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and other partners, timbered the site and created openings and meadows. It planted vegetation conducive to attracting meadow voles and other small mammals that could serve as prey species, too.
It then took 10 massasauga snakes implanted with radio transmitters and transplanted them on site to see how they fared.
“Basically, it boiled down to this: if we could create habitat, would the species respond, and how so, and could we find a way to quantify that,” Ruhe said.
The snakes did indeed respond, he said. The snakes took up residence, mated and gave birth on the site, Ruhe said. That was a first since the 1980s.
To sustain the species — at that site especially — will require maintaining habitat, Ruhe said, beating back forestation via machinery or perhaps using livestock to graze. But the results are promising for the snakes, he said.