A Jackson County Forestry and Parks employee was working on a bulldozer recently making wildlife openings when he saw a snake slither in front of him. The employee got out of the bulldozer and found the snake to be one of the rarest species in the nation, the massasauga rattlesnake.
“We’ve gone 30 years without a confirmed sighting, and just over the last three years this has been our fifth confirmed sighting,” Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Scott Roepke said.
Rori Paloski, a conservation biologist with the DNR that is tasked with keeping track of endangered species like the massasauga rattlesnake gets pretty excited when they have a confirmed sighting.
“We don’t get a lot of reports about massasaugas. This is a pretty secretive species, so we are always excited and it is rare in general to get a massasauga report,” Paloski said explaining they get one or two reports a year from around the state. “They are tough for us to find. There was one site this summer we surveyed throughout the summer for about 40 hours of search time and we still couldn’t find one at the site over the summer and we know they are there.”
Incidental take permits
Since the massasauga rattlesnake is on the endangered species list in Wisconsin and is federally listed as threatened, activities that can affect their population need to apply for incidental take permits including the clearings the Jackson County Forestry and Parks Department are completing.
“The snake was actually found in an area where you typically probably wouldn’t see this type of critter, but it still now puts a little wrench in what we are doing and would require us if we are going to maintain these openings in accordance with the recommendations from the DNR, we are going to have to apply for an incidental take permit over the winter so that we can conduct our mowing operations,” Jackson County Forestry and Parks assistant administrator Jon Schweitzer said.
An incidental take permit allows the activity to continue as long as impacts to the endangered species is minimized and mitigated.
“If we can’t avoid impacts to a listed species, then we move to an incidental take permit. That is something the state has that allows some take or mortality of a rare species to occur as long as we are minimizing it to the maximum state that we can,” Paloski said explaining that the massasauga rattlesnake also has the added step of needing federal government approval.
The massasauga rattlesnake was also a consideration for the rail load-out facility for the Meteor Timber silica sand mine.
“For the Meteor Timber project, the main concern with that project from the massasauga perspective is the construction itself and putting in the facility and the rail line. Once that initial work is done, there won’t be a lot of direct impact to the snake,” Paloski said.
On a long-term basis, one of the biggest concerns for the massasauga rattlesnake was the amount of tracks being placed for the railroad spur.
“The way the project is going in with that rail line is going to be quite a few tracks wide, about 12 sets of tracks in some areas. By doing that in the entire site it was like putting up a wall for the snakes throughout the site,” Paloski said. “We wanted to make sure we maintained the hydrology and the connectivity between the north side and south side of the tracks so the snakes could still continue to move back and forth.”
If businesses are worried about their impact on endangered species in the area, Paloski said you should request an endangered species review to be conducted by the DNR. If the project requires any kind of DNR permit, she said the process is automatically completed.
If you are interested in submitting a public comment about Meteor Timber’s massasauga rattlesnake incidental take permit request, you can do so until Oct. 9 by sending Paloski an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finding a massasauga rattlesnake
Paloski explains that the massasauga rattlesnake is one of two rattlesnake species in Wisconsin, with there being a total of 21 species of snakes in the state.
The other rattlesnake is known as the timber rattlesnake, which is more common.
“The timber rattlesnake is one that is found more on bluffs near our larger rivers and that one is a little bigger. People are usually more familiar with that one, it is a little more common,” Paloski said.
The massasauga rattlesnake on the other hand is a smaller rattlesnake at a maximum size of about three feet and it actually likes wetlands.
“Most rattlesnakes people are familiar with like dry areas in the western and southern parts of the country. The massasauga is a wetland specialist that lives in the uplands a little bit as well,” Paloski said. “It has been listed as state endangered since the 70s in Wisconsin, and then in 2016 actually on Halloween it was federally listed as a threatened species as well.”
The DNR doesn’t do counts on snakes like they do wolves or bears, but instead look for sites where populations are present.
“Right now we think we have eight designated populations left in the state. One of the populations it has been several years since we have seen them, we are not doing active surveys all of the time at all of the sites, but it could be a remnant population where there are just a few left. Up to our biggest sites where we are hoping we have maybe 100 or more at the biggest sites,” Paloski said explaining that Jackson County is home to two of those sites.
Even though Jackson County is home to the massasauga rattlesnake, where the Jackson County Forestry and Parks Department stumbled on one was rare.
“The massasauga likes a wetland like I mentioned. They will use floodplain forests and openings as well, especially later in the summer,” Paloski said.
Even through the forest openings were mainly created to attract elk and turkeys, Schweitzer, Paloski and Roepke all agreed that the act of making clearings in the forests probably led to the finding.
“Those two species (elk and turkeys) will obviously benefit from these openings, but there is a whole host of species, obviously like the massasauga rattlesnake is one that will benefit from it,” Schweitzer said.
Paloski said that massasauga rattlesnakes like to sun themselves to get warm and so sometimes will seek out clearings, “They definitely use open areas, so that is possible that is what attracted them.”
To identify the massasauga rattlesnake, it has a grayish or beige background and is pretty thick in comparison to more slender snakes. It will have black or dark brown spots, making it look similar to a Fox or Pine snake, which is common in Wisconsin.
Paloski said she often gets incorrect reports of massasauga rattlesnakes that are actually Fox Snakes. According to Paloski, the best way to tell them apart is their tails.
“Even the baby rattlesnakes when they are born will have what is called a button rattle, so it is one rattle segment at the end of their tail. It will be a blunt rattle segment at the end of the tail. The Fox Snake is always going to have a pointed tail tip that is going to look like a sharpened pencil,” Paloski said.
The Fox snake is so similar that it even rattles its tail, which also leads to people misidentifying it said Paloski. The massasauga rattlesnake’s demeanor is also different than a Fox Snake.
“The massasauga is a pretty docile snake. The Fox Snake is by far on average more aggressive than the massasauga,” Paloski said explaining that the massasauga rattlesnake prefers to hide while the Fox Snake thinks its best defense is to act scary.
Paloski did warn that the massasauga rattlesnake is venomous.
“The two rattlesnakes in Wisconsin have the ability to dry bite when they bite you, meaning they may not inject venom into you. They will do that if they are more just trying to warn you. The venom they really use if they are trying to kill something like if it is a small mammal that they are eating where they actually want to kill it. Yes, they do have venom and maybe about a third of the time they will dry bite if they get harassed,” Paloski said.
If you find a massasauga rattlesnake, Paloski said to leave it alone and if possible, take a picture of it from a long distance away for proper identification and then send her an email of the picture.